"It's not a comedy about cancer, it's a comedy about a woman who has cancer. And there is a difference."
Laura Linney is quick to make that distinction in discussing "The Big C," which marks the three-time Emmy winner's debut as a weekly series star. Premiering Monday, Aug. 16, the Showtime program casts her as Cathy, a teacher and family woman who responds to her prognosis with pluck and edge by throwing off all her shackles -- perceived or real -- and deciding to tackle her remaining time full-on.
The material being so rich is "certainly an added bonus," Linney says, "but this came to me at a time when all the big issues that the show encompasses intersected with everything I had been obsessing about in my own life especially time and how you spend it and, if you know you have a limited amount of it, how that affects your behavior."
Linney acknowledges some skepticism that's been voiced, ever since "The Big C" was announced, about putting cancer through a humorous filter.
"People bump up against that and can't see how that's possible," she says, "which is an understandable response. What's challenging for me is to explore the possibilities. The range of human behavior is vast, and when things are urgent and important, comedy can begin to emerge.
"What does something like this do to your identity? What does it do to your relationships? It just blows your world apart. She chooses not to tell anyone about this for a while, and you really learn about who she is and what her history has been, and also about all these people around her."
Also an executive producer of the show, Linney has impressive acting support in "The Big C." Oliver Platt ("2012") plays her husband, Brian Cox ("The Bourne Identity") her father, and Idris Elba ("The Wire") a painter she's drawn to, and Cynthia Nixon ("Sex and the City") joins the show midway through its season as Cathy's college roommate, who re-enters her life in a big way.
Additionally, recent Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire") portrays a surly student with whom Cathy makes an unusual bet both can profit from ... the student financially, Cathy spiritually.
"I knew then that I wanted to do comedy and do something different," the spirited Sidibe recalls of being offered "The Big C" at the start of the movie award season. "I wanted to do something not so depressing, so of course, I'd do a show about cancer! My character, Andrea, is one of (Cathy's) distractions. She's kind of a wild card; she does what she wants. She's 17, so she thinks she's invincible, and all her thoughts and words are pretty open."