A comedy about cancer?
Okay, I know that when adversity strikes, it’s considered inspirational and more heroic to put on a good face and a good fight than it is to hole up in a room by yourself, like a wounded animal waiting to die.
But a comedy about cancer?
I wonder who the audience is, or if it simply depends on personalities. When I learned about my ex-wife’s affairs, for example, it crushed me so badly that I couldn’t stand to watch TV shows or movies about infidelity. I was as hypersensitive to them as former smokers are to current puffers. And yes, I found myself feeling more of the same as I watched “The Big C: Season 2.” It’s a well-written and well-acted series, but because it’s about a Stage 4 (terminal) melanoma patient and I’ve had two melanomas myself, well, there’s just a little too much in the show that hits too close to home.
So who IS the audience for Showtime’s “The Big C”? Whoever they are, their numbers are dwindling. The average audience for Season 3 was 479,000, compared to the 890,000 who watched the Season 2 opener.
I could see why, though, even five episodes into this season. I hadn’t seen the show prior to Season 2, and so it was still fresh for me. I appreciated the relationship dynamics that were set up in the first few episodes: High school teacher and suburban mom Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) has an “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” attitude, and she’s not going to be denied a shot at whatever new treatment might be out there. Her husband, Paul (Oliver Platt), rather than being a brooding or morose sort, feeds off of her and matches her mood—which is the best thing a spouse can do. And their son, Adam (Gabriel Basso) just wants a normal teenhood and seems to be more in denial than either of them, but resistant to the therapist they’ve engaged for him.
Meanwhile, in the typical balancing of life and death, Cathy’s brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), who lives across the street, recently learned that his girlfriend, Cathy’s longtime friend Rebecca (Cynthia Nixon), is pregnant. But the series seems to take its cue from a line that Cathy speaks: “Just so you know, there’s no such thing as truly normal.” So Sean is bi-polar but refuses to take medication because he wants to be the “fun Sean,” not the button-down-collar Sean. He loses it when he finds out about his sister’s terminal illness and pitches a tent on the front lawn, camping out in his underwear and posting Occupy signage that attacks Cathy.
In the previous season Cathy’s young oncologist (Reid Scott) apparently kissed her, and this season begins with an apology and his declaration that he’s taking her off chemo because the tumors aren’t shrinking, and her body is deteriorating. So you get the dual arc of Cathy and Paul moving forward with a new doctor (Alan Alda) and a new treatment and hopefully a new direction other than the one they’re on now, which leads to death, and the arc of Rebecca and Sean as they prepare to welcome a new life.
There’s nothing new to be found in the plotting, as there are too many things done for the sake of symmetry, and too many things that are predictable. When a fellow patient gives Cathy her angel coin, we pretty much know she’s toast—and even a few head-scratching moments, as when Paul drives Cathy to an unsavory neighborhood so his wife can make a “buy,” even though Dr. Mauer suggested marijuana as the only thing left that might relieve her pain, and probably would have written a prescription for medicinal Mary Jane.
And just as living situations like this can be draining, watching them is only slightly less so. When we hear Dr. Sherman’s frank pronouncement in the children’s ward that more than half of the children he’s entertaining with a magic show are going to die, and that people die all the time, well, in the parlance of the marijuana smoker, it’s a bummer. I don’t think I’ll tune in to Season 3, and not because it isn’t a well-acted and well-written show. It’s because of the subject matter, and because the creators and producers haven’t found a way to breathe enough life into it. And I have to say that her visions of her dead neighbor, Marlene, got about as old as the deceased father did in “Six Feet Under.”
Here’s a rundown on the 13 episodes, which are contained on three single-sided discs and housed in two slim keep cases, tucked inside a cardboard keep case:
“Losing Patients.” In the wake of Marlene’s death, Cathy is plagued by her late neighbor’s ghost as she learns that her latest chemotherapy regimen isn’t working.
“Musical Chairs.” Cathy pushes for an appointment with Dr. Sherman, and gets into his special clinical trial group despite initially being told ‘no.’
“Sexual Healing.” Paul finds himself in an awkward situation when Cathy loses all interest in sex and then offers Andrea a place to stay until graduation. Meanwhile, as Adam deals with his own emerging sexuality, Rebecca struggles with Sean’s suddenly awakened libido.
“Boo!” With her clinical trial about to get underway, Cathy is beset by one problem after another. And as he prepares for Halloween, Sean worries that his house is being haunted by its late owner, Marlene.
“Cats and Dogs.” As she finds herself getting closer to a fellow clinical trial patient, Cathy worries about Paul’s commitment to finding a new job. Meanwhile, when Adam gets in over his head in an effort to ease his sexual frustration, he turns to his Uncle Sean for help.
“The Little C.” As she grows closer to Lee, Cathy shakes uip her life by becoming her high school’s swimming coach. And while Paul coaches an immigrant co-worker on how to get a promotion, Adam’s encounter with a prostitute causes problems for the whole family.
“Goldilocks and the Bears.” Learning that her blood pressure is elevated, Cathy turns to her new friend, Lee, for advice. While Paul feels skeptical about this new “cancer friend,” Andrea and Myk have a very nervous first date.
“The Last Thanksgiving.” Seeing signs that her chemo is working, Cathy plans an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner to celebrate. But as her good news threatens to expose her friend Lee’s lack of success with his own treatment.
“A Little Death.” No description (spoilers).
“How Do You Feel?” Cathy tries to patch things up with Lee, Sean struggles to cope with problems of his own, and Adam learns an unsettling truth when he joins a friend at her high school reunion.
“Fight or Flight.” Cathy looks for Sean, who’s turned up missing.
“The Darkest Day.” A family vacation is in jeopardy because of everyone’s problems.
“Crossing the Line.” Cathy plans to run a marathon, despite her doctor’s warnings, and Paul finds himself with a drug problem.
Parker Posey and Gabourey Sidibe also star this season.
“The Big C” is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the level of detail and color saturation is impressive for standard definition. There’s only the slightest amount of grain, and the edges hold pretty well.
The audio is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and though the rear speakers don’t offer much in the way of ambient sound, the dialogue is clear and crisp and the musical interludes remind you that you’re listening to 5.1 Surround.
Deleted scenes and outtakes—that’s it.
The acting and dialogue are strengths, but weak plotting and an inability to truly infuse a depressing subject with vitality keep “The Big C: Season 2” from being the runaway hit it might have been.