The Big C -- TV Review

"The Big C"
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The adventurous world of cable original programming is rife with taboo-busting tales. Into the crowd of well-meaning meth dealers, anxiety-ridden mobsters and suburban pot-dealing mamas rides "The Big C," Showtime's new comedy starring and executive produced by Laura Linney, a show that strives to put the fun back into terminal illness -- while avoiding the word "cancer" as long as possible.

It's a strange dance that "Big C" initiates: Linney's Cathy Jamison has Stage 4 melanoma and opts to dodge treatment so she can enjoy the rest of her time on Earth. She's also keeping her diagnosis a secret as she clings to these remaining threads of life, which makes her loved ones -- estranged husband Paul (Oliver Platt) and teenage son Adam (Gabriel Basso) -- confused, then irritated.

This is meant to be funny because Cathy has a skewed vision of herself; she's never really let loose and can only fumble with efforts to do so now (she sets the hated living room couch on fire and sunbathes nude in the backyard). Her more successful forays come from the gut, as when she tells off a curmudgeonly neighbor (Phyllis Somerville) or lunches flirtatiously with her dermatologist (Reid Scott) about how he handled his first terminal diagnosis (hers). Notes her brother (John Benjamin Hickey), "You're starting to get your weird back, sis," to which Linney tells him slyly, "You have no idea."

The results are hit-and-miss. Linney is one of our great underestimated actresses (three Oscar noms, three Emmy wins), whose initial brittle vulnerability belies unexpected strength. She gets to run the gamut here, from scenes of subtle, surprising humor with Scott (Cathy wants to know his nonclinical take on her body and is amused that he admires her "rack") to devastatingly dramatic monologues -- check out the final scene in the pilot.

But Cathy is surrounded by characters, rather than people, and that's where the role begins to feel showoff-y. She's able to reduce them all into a type with a sharp comment yet remains unformed herself; the reasoning behind her refusal to share her diagnosis is hazy at best, for example. Such soft areas, and a feeling of forced quirkiness, keep "Big C" from being a Class A series. Still, it's a show that, like Cathy, almost certainly will find its footing as time goes on and, like terminal illness, undoubtedly will provide a few surprises before the end.

Airdate: 10:30-11 p.m. Monday, Aug. 16 (Showtime)
Production: Sony Pictures Television
Cast: Laura Linney, Oliver Platt, Gabriel Basso, John Benjamin Hickey, Phyllis Somerville
Executive producers: Jenny Bicks, Darlene Hunt, Laura Linney, Neal H. Moritz, Vivian Cannon
Creator-writer: Darlene Hunt
Writer: Toni Kalem
Co-executive producer: Michael Engler, Merrill Karpf, Mark Kunerth
Producer: Cara DiPaolo, Julia Rask, Elicia Bessette
Directors: Bill Condon (pilot), Michael Engler
Director of photography: John Thomas
Production designer: Michael Shaw
Costume designer: Tom Broecker
Casting: Julie Tucker, Ross Meyerson
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