The Big C: Making Cancer Funny

Doug Strassler

Never has television programming had such commitment issues as it does when concerning the issue of cancer, which, according to late comedienne Gilda Radner, is "the most unfunny thing in the world." First, as I wrote [about yesterday]( ), Walt White's cancer went into remission on Breaking Bad. Then, in the second season of The Big C, fortysomething teacher Cathy Jamison's (Laura Linney) melanoma no longer seems to be the terminal sentence it was at series' end, thanks to an aggressive experimental treatment. That's great news for Cathy and her family, which includes husband Paul (Oliver Platt), mentally imbalanced and previously homeless brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), son Adam (Gabriel Basso), and essentially adopted student Andrea (Precious' Gabourey Sidibe), who moved into the Jamison household last year as Cathy's health took a turn for the better. But it signals an identity crisis for the current third season of Big C, a show that never knew exactly what it wanted to be from the beginning. A cancer comedy? The very idea sounds incongruous, and while 50/50 toed the line with a large degree of success, such a story is easier to tell within 100 minutes, with a finite end in sight. Initially Cathy kept her diagnosis a secret from her husband and started acting out, talking back to her students and even having an affair (in fairness, Paul was unfaithful as well). Finally, she told Paul and Adam about her disease and they supported her through appointments, insurance woes and side effects. As Darlene Hunt's series progressed, it got lighter. Or at least Cathy's load did. Other characters started bearing more of the series' burden: in an extended guest role, Cynthia Nixon left Sean after a miscarriage. Cathy's neighbor Marlene (Phyllis Somerville), afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, committed suicide. Lee (Hugh Dancy), a fellow patient in Cathy's clinical trial, succumbed to the disease that was starting to release its hold on Cathy. And then, at the end of last season, a coke-riddled Paul had a heart attack ? a seemingly fatal one. Evading what would have been a jump-the-shark moment, Paul turned up alive in the third season premiere. Now he and Cathy are both survivors. And yet Hunt's series is currently neither inspiring nor riveting. The main storylines this season involve the Jamisons' attempt to adopt a new baby and Paul's burgeoning Internet celebrity. Sean, though heterosexual, has started fielding calls on a gay sex hotline. Andrea, while still a teen, has adopted a new African name and become Paul's manager, and Adam's girlfriend troubles, which could be meaty, are played for sexual laughs. Is Big C biding its time for an eventual dramatic humdinger? Or does Hunt just want viewers walking down the sunny side of the cable TV street? While the material feels thin, Big C nonetheless attracts a cadre of terrific actors. Its Connecticut filming location attracts a cadre of great New York-based theater actors, including Michael Chernus, Victor Garber, and Hamish Linklater, and this season has season major stars like Allison Janney and Susan Sarandon make appearances too. And lest we forget about the show's main cast, Linney, Hickey and Platt turn in razor-sharp work week after week. They know how to ring each line of dialogue for just the right amount of zing. That's what makes this show, middling in its current form, so frustrating. A show about life and death really should us far more to laugh and cry about.