After finally revealing to her family that she has stage IV melanoma, high school teacher Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) agrees to take part in a clinical trial of an experimental treatment.
I may not be the best person to review this show. And not because I havenít seen the first season (although thatís part of it, perhaps). My father died of cancer almost five years ago, and while watching The Big C I had a hard time trying to keep the seared images of his last three months (which is roughly the length of time from diagnosis to his death) out of my brain. This showís take on a woman whoís been diagnosed with a form a cancer that has a survival rate of something like twelve percent is nothing like my fatherís battle, but I didnít expect it to be. But I was expecting something that bore something of a resemblance to real life, something other than just another nondescript quirky dramedy.
This isnít a show about a woman with cancer inasmuch as itís a show in which the main character just happens to have cancer (and if what Iíve read about the latest season is true, itís quickly turning into a show in which cancer plays almost no part). The cancer element strikes me as nothing more than a way to distinguish the show; I wouldnít be surprised to learn the show started life as a faceless comedy and the cancer stuff was introduced as a way of selling something in which no studio would otherwise be interested.
I canít speak for anyone else, but itís been my experience that a terminal or possibly terminal diagnosis hangs like a cloud over the lives of the people affected. Thatís not the case here. Here it hovers in the background, brought out whenever the producers want to push an emotional button. Iím not saying itís exploitative (itís close, though), but itís easy and somewhat disingenuous. The Big C doesnít deal with cancer and its effects in any meaningful way (and sometimes not at all). Thatís the problem.
More precisely, itís a sub-problem. The big problem here, one from which all the other problems stem, is the writing. Not only do creator Darlene Hunt and her writing staff supply an uneasy mixture of quirky comedy and forced melodrama (itís too mawkishly manipulative and strained to be true drama), they also fall into the standard trap of giving every character some sort of subplot.
For example, Kathyís son Adam (Gabriel Basso) becomes the unlikely stud of his high school (as soon as word gets out his mom has cancer, his female classmates start cornering him and dropping their pants, which makes about as much sense as the mythology of Scientology), hires a dominatrix, contracts crabs and inadvertently gives them to everyone in the house, and arranges a meeting with another child of a cancer patient only to discover itís a pushing-forty woman (Parker Posey, who does her usual one-note thing).
Like all of the showís subplots, none of this goes anywhere, coming to a conclusion whenever the writers run out of ideas; itís just something for the character to do, adding nothing to the overall story. Itís forced and obvious, too obviously contrived to play as the sort of thing that just sort of seems to happen in life.
The most egregious example of this, though, involves Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe), a supporting-player holdover from Season One. There she was a student Cathy took a special interest in, while here she moves into the house with the Jamisons. Thereís some explanatory nonsense about why she moves in, but the actual reason is simple: so the writers donít have to invent a new reason every week for her to be around. (From what I understand, the season currently airing has Cathy and her husband [played by Oliver Platt] attempting to adopt a child. I guess Hunt is bound and determined to Cousin Oliver this show.)
Andreaís big subplot involves her relationship with a Ukrainian transplant (Boyd Holbrook) who works at a local bog-box electronics store. This guyís entire story is obvious from the very beginning; the moment he opens his trunk and a couple of TV boxes are centered in the shot (theyíre Bravia televisions, which Andrea kindly points outs before complimenting the sets on their size and quality; Sony produces both Bravia televisions and The Big C), thereís no question what heís up to and why heís so interested in Andrea. That Hunt and the other writers drag this out for half the season is all the proof you need they have absolutely no idea what theyíre doing.
In case you require more proof: the writers go out of their way to give one character a cocaine habit, culminating in a final-episode heart attack. The guy already looks like a walking heart attack, so once again the producers are just giving him something to do and building to a cheap payoff (the irony being that the drug habit makes it clear somethingís going to happen to this character; a vanilla heart attack would have been far more unexpected). Also, Cathy can see dead people.
The comedy, unfortunately, is no better than the drama. Adam spends much of the first episode ripping smelly farts, and the episode concludes with Cathy hugging him and letting rip with a smelly fart of her own. Cathyís brother, who suffers from bipolar disorder, is made out to be the showís version of the standard wacky neighbor. He responds to the news of her illness by camping out on his lawn and refusing to move back into his house, and he frets over the fact that Adam has named the turkey the family plans to eat for Thanksgiving. (You know that stuff that always happens whenever people in a movie or television show purchase a live turkey to kill, pluck, and eat? Happens here.) A dog laps up a bunch of pain medication and is later found immobile and unresponsive. Cathyís oncologist (Alan Alda) is married to a much younger, very attractive woman (Laura Benanti). Man, is she ever perky! And very open about her sex life, cheerily regaling Cathy with tales of her husbandís proficiency at cunnilingus. How innovative.
Cathyís appearance never changes. Most people who have cancer undergo some sort of physical change, and treatments often compound those changes; Cathy, however, looks exactly the same from episode to episode. Pardon me for being a stereotypical heterosexual male for a moment, but Linney isnít a bad-looking woman. The fact that she isnít a bad-looking woman only serves to call further attention to the showís refusal to play straight and true with her characterís situation. Cathy never looks like anything other than the main character in a semi-glossy Hollywood production. Thatís a little insulting.
Hunt and her compatriots make an attempt to cover their dancing around Cathyís condition by supplying Cathy with a cancer buddy, someone the audience can watch battle the disease while the main character is running marathons and planning overseas trips. This character, Lee (Hugh Dancy), is introduced when Cathy hits him with her car in the parking lot of the hospital where theyíll be undergoing the clinical trial. (Apparently knowing nothing of what happens whenever someone hits another person with his/her car and the victim jokingly shrugs it off, Cathy assumes sheíll never see the guy again. Surprise!) They bond during treatment, and Cathy thinks Lee is interested in her romantically before he reveals heís gay (not knowing this makes her look really dumb).
Cathy and her husband Paul later accompany Lee to a gay bar, where the cubs really take to Paulís ursine appearance, and she fulfills a lifelong dream of Leeís by allowing him to (here we go again) feel her breasts. Itís obvious where Leeís story is headed, and itís obvious how it will affect Cathyís newly repaired relationship with her family. Consequently, itís obvious the writers canít be bothered to come up with anything new, smart, or real.
Hereís the best thing I can say: the showís not exactly an ordeal to watch. No, itís not good, but I never wanted to slit my wrists or anything. You can thank the cast for that. Linney is her typically exceptional self, and almost everyone else is very good. The exception is Sidibe, who is awful. Sheís a good dozen years older than the character sheís playing, and her attempts to channel her inner sixteen-year-old are painful. (In Sidibeís defense, though, Huntís inability to decide whether Andrea is wise beyond her years or dumb as a bag of hammers likely doesnít help.)
The actors canít overcome writing that never rises above the level of same-old-thing. Thereís no focus whatsoever here, no sign the creators are going anywhere but down paths so well-traveled theyíre not only paved and lighted but likely have a Starbucks on the corner. Simply put, I see no reason to bother with The Big C.
The show is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; the transfers have been enhanced for anamorphic displays, and the thirteen episodes included here have been spread across three discs. The show is shot digitally, and occasionally thereís a shot that looks a little flat or unnatural. For the most part, though, the image is a relatively strong one for this sort of television show (in other words, one in which the look isnít really all that important), clear, somewhat detailed, and not hampered by any sort of compression anomalies.
The sole audio option is a series of English Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. As you might expect, the showís sound mix is front-heavy; the surrounds do add some mild reinforcement for the music (a different song accompanies each episodeís end credits), but other than that thereís nothing going on in the rear channels (the same is true for the low end). But thereís really not a lot happening here aurally; dialogue is far and away the biggest component of the mix, and it sounds fine. English and English SDH subtitles are available.
Twelve deleted scenes (11 minutes) are spread across all three discs. Theyíre inconsequential.
The only other extra is a reel of outtakes (6 minutes). You can expect flubs, blown lines, uncontrollable laughter, etc.
Iím sure fans will want to grab this one. I canít in good conscience recommend it to anyone else, though.