Showtime’s new series The Big C provides an original, quirky option for television viewers who are tired of shows that take themselves too seriously. Although this dark comedy is about a woman finding unique and inventive ways to cope with her cancer diagnosis (which she considers a death sentence), the tone of The Big C is light and airy. The sun is always shining, the grass is always green and the jokes (most of which at least inspire a smile) keep coming.

Laura Linney portrays Cathy Jamison, an uptight suburban high school teacher, wife, and mother to a teenaged boy. Her outlook on life is turned topsy-turvy when her doctor (the endearingly awkward Reid Scott) tells her she is dying of Stage IV melanoma. We never actually witness this exchange, though the two often refer to it after they become unexpected friends. When the pilot begins, however, Cathy has already had time to react to the news of her impending doom and is knee-deep in her metamorphosis with no hope of turning back.

From that point on, dying becomes an exercise in self-indulgence that’s impossible to deny her, partly because she’s having so damned much fun and partly because we all wish we would have the courage to do the same in similar circumstances. While deciding to refuse chemotherapy treatment (she doesn’t want to lose her hair of course) and keep her condition to herself, Cathy starts to take control of the life that she has always let others dominate. She suddenly realizes that she has strong opinions of her own. She epitomizes this in a monologue on onions in which she realizes she hasn’t eaten onions in years because her husband has never wanted anything to do with them.

Cathy begins to sever old ties and nurture new ones. Her husband, Paul (the engaging and always funny Oliver Platt), whose juvenile behavior has become too much for Cathy to handle, is the first to fall under her axe. Second is her teaching career, which seems to have jaded her beyond the point of repair. After realizing she’s basically babysitting her high school history summer school class, she chooses to show them Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, reasoning that the 20 percent of the film that is actually historically accurate comprises more than they know about the Revolutionary War in the first place.

While letting particular unpalatable or exhausting aspects of her life drop by the wayside, she steps up her efforts to increase certain people’s involvement. Her homeless, vegan, neo-hippie of a brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) is one of them. This guy is so determined to avoid contributing to the consumerist culture that he only eats food from restaurants if other patrons are throwing it away. He won’t accept anything from his own sister unless she insists she will otherwise trash it. The interaction between Cathy and Sean provides the most rewarding material in The Big C. Linney plays the perfect straight man to Hickey’s wackiness, and the chemistry between the two is lively. They seem like they’ve known each other for years.

Along her strange, unpredictable journey Cathy also befriends an irritable, racist old widow (Phyllis Somerville) named Marlene who lives like a hermit in her unkempt house, which happens to be right across the street from the Jamison residence. Marlene represents where Cathy’s life could have gone if she’d been allowed a few more years, while reinforcing that longevity is not always a gift. She also offers Cathy the perspective of someone who is on her way out of life. In fact, Cathy often approaches Marlene as she would death itself—with anger, frustration, but ultimate acceptance.

Gabourey Sidibe plays Cathy’s student, Andrea, an overweight girl who has developed a sarcastic, sometimes nasty attitude as a defense mechanism, when all she really wants is to be taken seriously. On some level, she appreciates that Cathy is honest with her about the damaging effects her weight might have on her future. Cathy tries to impart that it is foolish for Andrea to destroy her health when she actually has a choice in the matter. The relationship is mutually beneficial, as Andrea provides Cathy with another valuable perspective that she has never considered in her own limited, narrow world.

Ironically, the relationship that is supposed to be the most compelling brings the least substance to the show. Cathy’s untimely diagnosis presents her with the opportunity to reconnect with her son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), but the boy is so spoiled, closed-minded and unsympathetic that one doubts if even a mother could love him. Of course, I am familiar with the overused motif of the rebellious teen, but I also expect writers to include certain redeeming qualities in their character sketches. This kid is completely unlikable, and perhaps the only character in the program who completely lacks chemistry with Linney.

Ultimately, The Big C has a lot of potential to be another Weeds for Showtime. They certainly have to iron a few things out, but the premise is exciting and the acting adorable. Linney brings an unusual theatrical flare to her character and many of her monologues end up sounding more like soliloquies. I sometimes expect her to “freeze” the rest of the characters in the frame while she speaks—a strategy which could be a lot more jarring if Linney didn’t bring her specific talents to the task. It is no surprise that she and Platt outshine the rest of the cast, but the real surprise here comes from Hickey, who easily fits into their satisfying brand of comedy.

Starring: Laura Linney, Oliver Platt, Gabriel Basso, John Benjamin Hickey, Phyllis Somerville, Reid Scott, Gabourey Sidibe

Created by: Darlene Hunt

Network: Showtime

Airtime: Mondays, 10:30 p.m. 

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