Build a swimming pool. That’s what Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) does when she learns her melanoma is terminal in the pilot of The Big C, Showtime’s offbeat cancer comedy now in its second season. Oh, she also kicks her husband (Oliver Platt) out of the house, befriends a brassy, foul-mouthed teen (Gabourey Sidibe), and fucks a hot painter (Idris Elba) from the school where she teaches. Repeatedly.
We’ve been here before: protagonist, knowing death is imminent, grabs life by the reins. At first glance, what makes The Big C different are its two main conceits — one, that Cathy decides to keep her illness secret, and two, that each season of the series corresponds to a season of the year, starting with summer. The former adds a certain element of intrigue as the series finds its footing, then grows tiresome. It’s a blank check for Cathy to act bizarrely, and there’s good fun to be had in some of her hijinks, but eventually the overdone quirkiness adds up to little more than a few funny set pieces. (It doesn’t help that the weirdos of Cathy’s lacuna spend so much time seeming like they’re forcing it.)
It turns out that the latter conceit, which ingrains The Big C with a certain unexpected patience, is the key to the series’ growing appeal. Once Cathy gives up the ruse, Linney’s expert ability to capture strength and pain in the same line starts to soar. When she irks the parents of the girls’ swim team she coaches in season 2 by kicking their helicoptering asses out of practice, they hold a meeting to have her fired. One of the moms calls her a bitch, and Cathy, referring to a the words on a shirt she wore to get through chemo, says, “That’s right. I’m a brave bitch!” In this moment Linney is at once frightened and forceful, vulnerable and vigorous — her slight shake could be nerves or anger, and is probably both. There is nary a more likable, flawed, human character in any situational comedy on TV right now, and she alone would be reason enough to start watching.
But it just so happens that when the writing allows Linney to up the ante, her rising tide lifts all boats. Paul, once mincing and whiny, becomes valiant but frustrated; Andrea opens up without losing sass. And Cathy’s son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), heretofore a snippy brat, gets to show why The Big C is really different, a brave bitch of a comedy that unleashes a hell of a lot of smart quips but sneaks in a hell of a lot of real feeling, too. In the season 1 finale, Adam discovers the storage unit Cathy has filled with the gifts she won’t be able to give him, the souvenirs she wants him to remember her by. His tears flow so fast and hard they could fill that swimming pool, and in a single moment The Big C has become something much more than it initially promised. This isn’t a cancer comedy. It’s a survivor’s handbook.