Judge Bill Gibron is more concerned with the Big V.
Life…or what's left of it, is what you make it.
Showtime, like most cable concerns, loves its image as a cutting edge designer of "close to the edge" TV fair. Whether it's Weeds (suburban moms as pot dealers!), Nurse Jackie (pill popping physician/nurse heal thyself character study!) or The L Word (lesbians…enough said!); the lack of broadcast limitations provides these pay services with a sense of subversion that only an ad campaign can love. While never really pushing the true envelope, these outlets love to announce their entertainment derring-do. When it arrived last year, the channel's latest-The Big C-was heralded as funny business about a horribly unfunny subject. It sold itself as a companion piece of sorts to other on-air efforts, hoping you'd tune in to take the chance at chuckling at death itself. Unfortunately, as the first season of this otherwise interesting series indicates, The Big C is not really interested in the elements suggested by said consonant. It's not a real comedy. It's not completely coherent. It doesn't create a continuing interest, and in the end, it's not challenging enough. Turing a 40-something suburbanite into an illness induced wild child may seem subversive, but the show is actually nothing more than a standard drama with an unusual premise and some passable entertainment value.
Facts of the Case
Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney, Kinsey) teaches high school. One day, she is diagnosed with terminal melanoma, and decides to radically alter her life. She decides not to tell her pampered, babyish husband Peter (Oliver Platt, 2012) or her angry, belligerent teenage son Adam (Gabriel Basso, Super 8) and, instead, embarks on a series of personal quests—some material, some emotional—to make the most of her time left. She shares her secret and her strategies with aging neighbor Marlene (Phyllis Summerville, Little Children) and eventually gets closer to her homeless environmentalist brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey, Infamous). All the while, her doctor and confidant, Dr. Todd Mauer (Reid Scott, Bones) tries to convince her to get treatment. Instead, Cathy continues her aim of personal fulfillment, with or without her family. Spread out over three discs, a brief overview of the first 13 storylines we follow are indicated here:
• "There's No C in Team"
• "Playing the Cancer Car"
• "Blue-Eyed Iris"
• "Two for the Road"
• "Happy Birthday, Cancer"
• "The Ecstasy and the Agony"
• "New Beginnings"
• "Everything that Rises Must Converge"
• "Taking the Plunge"
In essence, the best way to describe The Big C is as a proto-feminist Bucket List locked into every Harlequin-lite romantic notion of empowerment ever established. It's about one woman confronting her mortality by doing everything her previous role as wife, mother, and teacher denied her. It's about the freedom to say "What the F*ck" without the annoying consequences of real life butting in and making you feel guilty. Cathy has an excuse—she is dying. She has a group of supportive friends and equally fudged up family members who don't demand much more of her. When she decides she wants to do something, the cancer provides a convenient in and an always available out. No matter what, she's dying, dammit! It's kind of a cheat, really. Watching a middle aged woman do these things sans a special circumstance would be one thing. It would actually have the impact the creators feel this fanciful version has. Instead, The Big C cuts Cathy some major slack because Father Time has revoked her license for living—or at the very least, plans of revoking it temporarily.
That's not to say that the show isn't good, it's just not inspiring or amazing. It proffers its points with soap opera slickness, working us into a tizzy over things that have no real relevance to what's going on. The "will she or won't she" debate, centering on both the affairs and the treatment are also red herrings, ways of keeping the show running past a couple of palpable episodes. Because Laura Linney is so good as Cathy, because her supporting cast of Oliver Platt, John Benjamin Hickey, and Gabriel Basso provide such interesting asides, we tolerate the tricks. Even the work of Precious' Gabourey Sidibe shows that she—and the show—can be more than just a matron sighing over her sickness. We find ourselves falling into the rhythms being established, anticipating the next quandary with as much excitement as the next punchline. This is indeed a very funny show, albeit relying on a more subtle sense of humor to get by. Cathy isn't out to riff on the realities of having a terminal disease. Instead, we get to know the characters, understand their often simplistic motives, and then snicker as they settle in to live up to our predicted posturing or position.
Perhaps the best storyline centers on Cathy and Peter's precarious marriage. After we get around all the character affectations and overly written arguments, we can see the core of their caring for each other. In episodes like "There's No C in Team" and "The Ecstasy and the Agony" the ups and downs are delivered with precision. Cathy's kid is another story all together. His various subplots often stall things instead of keeping them aligned. Luckily, slacker Sean is around to be the buffer to such selfish silliness. While a handful himself, his complaints seem more valid, his issues more in line with what Cathy is going through. This is especially true of "Blue-Eyed Iris," "Two for the Road," and the Season One finale, "Taking the Plunge." If the show has a single incontrovertible flaw, it's that we never fully understand why Cathy would want to spend her last years/months of life in such superfluous out of initial character designs. Sure, her marriage has issues and her career is crap, but would cheap sex in a foreign land really resolve those issues? Instead, as with most of The Big C, it's wish fulfillment as outpatient treatment.
Given a cinematic feel via the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, The Big C: The Complete First Season does look good on DVD. Cable shows can pump significant funds into their TV series, meaning the show never looks cheap or chintzy. There is a lot of bright color and well defined detail to be discovered as well. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix makes little use of the set-up's spatial or directional designs, but still delivers clear dialogue, clean musical cues, and the occasional whiff of ambience. As for added content, there is quite a bit. Each disc offers deleted scenes and cast interviews. The first DVD also has a featurette focusing on the various characters in the show and their connection to the series and storylines. All in all, it's a good package, especially for diehards.
In some ways, The Big C reminds one of Showtime's first few forays into the original programming department, way back in the early '80s. Then, a sitcom like Brothers was considered beyond outrageous for the subject matter it chose to focus on—homosexuality and the gay lifestyle. Fast forward three decades, and orientation is uber-passe. In 2010, dying is the big narrative bugaboo and this series hopes to wring as much material out of one woman's battle with cancer as it can. For the most part, The Big C is worth watching. It's engaging and frequently very funny. But it's not the jaw dropping black comedy the original ads or the proposed premise would suggest. Instead, it's more minor than major, more slightly dull than truly cutting edge.
Not guilty, if just barely. A good idea perhaps undermined by a lack of real
imagination and intent.
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