Television review: ‘The Big C’

Traditionally, the term “the Big C” refers to cancer, and as the main character of Showtime’s new series by the same name has recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma, it seems a fitting title. In this case, “The Big C” could also refer to several other things — the big concept, for instance. Showtime has developed an alarming penchant for putting women in extreme situations and playing it for comedy, albeit of the darker variety. But cancer is still dicey, hitting closer to home for many viewers than, say, split personalities ( “United States of Tara”) or even drug addiction (“Nurse Jackie.”)

“The Big C” could also mean “big cast.” Much has been made of critics’ darling Laura Linney and her decision to enter the world of serialized television (though no doubt her Emmy win for HBO’s " John Adams” made it a tiny bit easier). Here she is joined by fellow stage actor John Benjamin Hickey (“Love! Valour! Compassion!”), the wonderfully elastic and prolific Oliver Platt, “Precious” Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe and veteran performer Phyllis Somerville (" NYPD Blue,” “Little Children”), who inevitably steals every scene she’s in.

The pilot is also directed by Bill Condon, but that seems to be pushing the whole “things that begin with C” conceit. Still, even on paper, “The Big C” has a lot going on. Then the action starts and things get, well, Crazy. And not necessarily in a good way.

Linney’s Cathy is a high school teacher who has just learned that the large and unmistakably problematic splotch on her back is Stage 4 melanoma. She is not interested in pursuing experimental treatments or sharing this information with any of the people closest to her. Instead, she begins to survey her life through the lens of its newly measured length, and much of what she sees is not to her liking.

She has a husband (Platt) so unapologetically childish that he says things like “stinky poo poo” and still gets drunk enough to pee on the front lawn; a son (Gabriel Basso) who is insolent and selfish even by early-teen standards; a wild-haired neighbor ( Somerville) who seems to have wandered out of a Flannery O’Connor short story; a hateful, mouthy summer school student (Sidibe) and a homeless eco-activist brother (Hickey) given to wearing plastic bags around his neck.

All of whom are introduced in the pilot, by the way, and this is a half-hour show.

Clearly, creator and executive producer Darlene Hunt is not sending Cathy gentle into that good night or anywhere else for that matter. No, Cathy will be dropping f-bombs, digging nonpermitted pools and splattering school buses with paintballs. Although “The Big C” does pose the eternal question — How would you live your life if you knew its actual dimensions? — it tries very hard not to take the expected path.

Too hard, unfortunately. So determined are Hunt, executive producer/showrunner Jenny Bicks and Linney that “The Big C” be unsentimental that they jam early episodes with so many over-blown characters and wacky antics that it’s impossible to attach meaning to any of them. Platt especially is almost criminally misused; as middle-aged wild child to Cathy’s more orderly (read: controlling) adult, he wanders in and out of scenes like some infantile forest creature, defined only by wifely resentment, unrecognizable as an adult male (much less one who has, apparently, a job big enough to pay for the very nice house in suburban Connecticut).

Linney, who has made a career exploring the fear and rage that is so often disguised as devotion, summons her not-inconsiderable charms to create a woman teetering between breakdown and breakthrough. That Cathy has no friends outside her eccentric brother is less than believable, but it’s a fair enough narrative decision. Much of the early story revolves around Cathy forming relationships with Sidibe’s Andrea, whom she has decided to save from her weight problem, and Somerville’s Marlene, who has hard-won wisdom to offer.

But while many of the scenes of “The Big C” are compelling in themselves, taken together they create a manic and manipulative half-hour. In attempting to capture the freefall of discovering that life will be a matter of months instead of years, Hunt and her writers have surrounded Cathy with so much attention-grabbing insanity — She must have a pool! A smackdown with Andrea, another with Marlene! Her brother is a nut! But maybe he’s right! No way is her son going to summer camp! And how can she live with a man who never closes the cupboard doors! — that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the woman herself.

Cathy’s decision to keep the news of her cancer to herself is the closest thing we get to a through-line, and fortunately, it’s a very good one. We all carry the certainty of our own end with us — as poet laureate W.S. Merwin reminds us: “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day / When the last fires will wave to me” — though for the most part we do it without discussion or even acknowledgment. How then should knowing the particulars change us, and what part of that knowledge do we owe friends and family? Watching Cathy flail wildly at her husband and child, one can’t help but think she is treating them unfairly by not explaining what is really going on. But what is really going on? Every day is another step toward the last, even for a teenager, and who’s to say that Cathy is closer to her end than any of those around her?

There are enough graceful moments in “The Big C” and certainly enough fine actors to hope that in subsequent episodes, things will slow down, that the grim determination to be “different” will give way to something, if not less outraged or outrageous, then less visibly straining to be so.