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With "The Big C," Showtime Presents Another Great Actress -- But Unfortunately, This Time, Not Another Great Show
August 16, 2010  | By David Bianculli

The addition of The Big C to Showtime's lineup (10:30 p.m. ET Monday) brings Laura Linney, a fabulous actress, to a network already boasting several excellent shows in which they star: Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie, Toni Collette in The United States of Tara, Mary-Louise Parker in Weeds. But while Linney belongs in that august company, The Big C does not...

The show is worth watching, to sample, but only because of Linney's lead performance. It's textured, and subtle, and believable -- which most other elements of The Big C are not.


The Big C stars Linney as Cathy, a wife, mother and high-school teacher who receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer. It's a big idea for a series, but The Big C, created by Darlene Hunt, aims small.

Prior to that diagnosis, she endured, for the most part, the overt hostility of her slacker son (Gabriel Basso), the spoiled selfishness of her childish husband (Oliver Platt), the aggressive indifference of her bored students (especially Gabourey Sidibe), the snarling rudeness of her unfriendly neighbor (Phyllis Somerville), and the taunting insults of her homeless brother (John Benjamin Hickey). After the diagnosis, she begins to become more spontaneous, outspoken and unpredictable.

The show itself, in its first three episodes, is not so much unpredictable as unbelievable. The homeless brother, the sassy student, the crabby neighbor -- the actors can't elevate these parts, as written, above cartoon caricatures, even though they struggle to do so. Before creating The Big C, one of Hunt's biggest credits was writing a few scripts for 90210. The remake. And The Big C, arguably, doesn't have THAT show's depth.


But it does have Linney, who played Abigail Adams in HBO's John Adams, and has shone in a string of intelligent, mostly independent feature films (Love Actually, Mystic River), and in a recurring role as one of Kelsey Grammer's few serious girlfriends on NBC's Frasier. She deserves a TV series of her own to show off, and take advantage of, her talent -- but The Big C isn't it. Cancer survivors may find some of the humor lazy and offensive, but so may everyone else.


Preceding The Big C on the Showtime lineup is the sixth-series premiere of Weeds (10 p.m. ET), and the difference between the two shows is obvious.

Mary-Louise Parker, too, is a marvelously believable actress -- one of my favorite TV performers, period. In Weeds, no matter how extreme and outrageous the plots get -- and they get plenty outrageous -- Parker's own reactions of incredulity, desperation and frustration, as out-of-control, drug-dealing single parent Nancy, sell the concept and keep things moving.

She also has a fabulous supporting cast around her, which keeps Weeds entertaining and fast-moving. And moving, not for the first time, is indeed the key word.


Once again this season, the program is rebooting itself, leaving Mexico, this time, because Nancy's son -- picking right up from last season's cliffhanger -- has just murdered a woman with a croquet mallet. Don't ask. Just watch. And enjoy.

With The Big C, you may as well watch. But except for Linney's performance, and Platt's, don't expect to enjoy.

You can hear my reviews of The Big C and Weeds on Monday's Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR. Or you can go to the Fresh Air website and both read and hear my review by clicking HERE.




Taylor said:

Just heard your review on NPR. Very saddened by your review - I feel it's incredibly inaccurate. I feel your suggestion the characters are unrealistic is sadly untrue - unless of course, you have led a very sheltered life. Perhaps you have. Have you ever been to Portland or British Columbia? Cathy's brother is someone who is known by EVERYONE in those communities. In complete accuracy. My grandmother was the neighbor. These are characters everyone is familiar with in one way or another and if you've noted the TONE of the show - the way it is written is to highlight the humor in these individuals. Exceptionally well. I'm afraid someone must have peed in your cornflakes before you watched this show. Let's hope it was Cathy crossing it off her bucket list.

Comment posted on August 16, 2010 3:59 PM

Kevin said:

I enjoyed the Big C. I even liked the guy from My Boys who played the doctor and I did not expect to. The neighbor was fairly cliche and I could do without the student teacher relationship but otherwise I liked it.

Comment posted on August 17, 2010 10:04 AM

Tausif Khan said:

David I heard our review on Fresh Air while I am sad that the Laura Linney vehicle does not show that much promise I hope the show is given some slack. As Maureen Ryan pointed out: http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_tv/2010/07/women-hollywood-sexism.html

The struggles of women to achieve equality in the work place are no different in Hollywood and most especially in places of power.

Because of Maureen Ryan's report I am glad to hear that "The Big C" has a female show runner. However, I hope we also cut the show runner some slack given the state of gender inequality in Hollywood.

Discussion around this topic has revealed that men are given more chances to fail and come up with new pilots while women are not afforded the same chances to learn their craft.

I hope you revisit the series to see if the show has improved because we as Americans definitely need the diversity of stories that people of different backgrounds can potentially bring to the screen.

[I consider myself anything but sexist. Female show runners and creators are behind some of my favorite shows right now, and even on Showtime, their good work is evident on such shows as Weeds and United States of Tara. But I'm cutting little slack, to a female or male, based on anything other than what's on the screen. The best way to achieve more equality in the workplace, I feel, is to do better work. -- David B.]

Comment posted on August 18, 2010 9:45 PM

Tausif Khan said:

David I want to make it clear that I am not accusing you of being sexist. Moreover I will also say I do not disagree with your review. What I want to make clear is that the workplace environment (either in an office or in Hollywood) is set up so that women, new to the field, are given less chances to fail. Even though this is a cliche I still feel it rings true that people learn most through failure and mistakes. Therefore I feel that because television is a serialized medium (ideally) it is possible that the show runner of "The Big C" will have a better handle on the show as the season progresses. Because of the serialized nature of television, viewers, critics and people involved in the production of the show can revisit their work as the season progresses. Thus impressions of the show might change and improve. Because of this I feel it is an important critical practice for television viewers to revisit previous opinions and see if they hold up.

Maureen Ryan for the longest time did not like Breaking Bad. However she recently decided to go back and revisit the show to see if her earlier criticism of the show held up. She reported on twitter and to her blog readers that most of the problems she had with the show (while always maintaining that the problems she identified with the show existed when she made them) had been addressed by the shows writers and could now see why everyone was raving about the show. I feel she put the serialized nature of television to good use in her critical perspective.

I just hope that the same courtesy is extended to all television writers so that viewers can truly learn which television shows are truly worth watching.

Sorry if anything I said was unclear. But once again, not accusing you of being sexist. Just hoping that people will give women an equal chance to fail as men.

[Got it -- and sorry about my misinterpretation. Revisiting shows is a healthy practice, and I both applaud and indulge in it, though it's annoyingly time-consuming, and seldom rewarding. You might think you're saving time if you love Breaking Bad from the start, as I did, but then you're watching it every week anyway. I'll stay with Big C because of Linney, but three episodes in, which I've previewed, I still see more premise than promise. -- David B.]

Comment posted on August 20, 2010 2:03 PM

Nathania Johnson said:

The show runner is not just a female, Jenny Bicks, but also a cancer survivor.

As a cancer survivor, I love this show. I love the humor. I love how they show how weird and strange and surreal life is after your diagnosis.

I don't really expect other people to get it. When I joke about cancer, "healthy" people are so shocked and get overly concerned about how "dark" I've gone.

The assessment that the characters surrounding Linney's character can be heightened is short-sighted. Once you've maxed out one emotion, you fall into another. When you laugh until you can't laugh anymore, you cry. And the Big C is set up perfectly for a full range of emotional movement - just like life with cancer.

Comment posted on August 29, 2010 4:34 PM

Margaret said:

I found this program to be one of the most realistic and accurate portrayals of life as we know it. The final show, where Cathy's son acknowledged that he finally understood what was going to happen, was one of the most moving television experiences I have ever had. When Oliver Platt was "chattering" before he had his affair? The most accurate portrayal of a person who has never considered "affair" was fabulous.

Comment posted on January 16, 2011 5:42 PM
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