There is obviously nothing Cute about Cancer, and last season Showtime’s The Big C tried a little too hard to be whimsical in the face of death. Laura Linney was appealingly rooted in the real world in spite of that as high-school teacher Cathy Jamison.
Given a near-certain prognosis of death, at first she refused to tell her husband, Paul (Oliver Platt) that she was sick; she kicked him out of the house instead. She tried to reestablish a sisterly bond with her bipolar brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), a dirt-encrusted back-to-nature guy who insisted on living in the street. Really, having her maniacally play paintball with one of her students (Gabourey Sidibe) was just too much, even as a form of denial.
But by the end of the season she had told Paul the truth and taken him back, and started a risky treatment that offered her just the slightest bit of hope for her stage 4 melanoma, "the really not good kind" as she puts it. And at least in its first few episodes the second season (which begins tonight) seems to have found a smart, delicately balanced tone.
The Big C is not trying to be funny about cancer, and it refuses to be depressing or maudlin either. It finds the absurdity, warmth and unexpected wit in the idea of living in the face of deadly disease.
In one of the new season’s astute touches, Cathy keeps seeing her neighbor, Marlene -- a perpetually snarling old woman with Alzheimer’s who befriended Cathy, and at the end of last season committed suicide. It makes so much sense for Cathy to keep seeing Marlene – still cranky and wise-cracking – that we’re not sure whether those visions are side effects of her drug treatment or some other kind of hallucination.
Linney is as good as ever, making Cathy feisty but never self-pitying. And Platt, given a better role, is fantastic. Paul fights for Cathy and for her life even harder than she does, his energy bordering on exuberance, although we know it’s driven by a deeper fear.
Linney and Platt alone make the show worth watching, but this season also has a smart plot about doctors. Cathy finds a new specialist (Alan Alda) so in demand she has to scheme to get an appointment and try to cajole her way into his clinical trial. He’s smiling, but abrupt and businesslike, and she quite rightly resents that. But he also makes some shrewd points, including the blunt statement that his bedside manner is beside the point if she wants to live.
The Big C hasn’t completely gotten past its affection for whimsy. Cathy’s old college friend, a mini-skirted drug rep named Rebecca (Cynthia Nixon) is having a baby with Sean. His concession to adulthood is sleeping in a tent in the backyard of Marlene’s old house. And Rebecca’s monstrously self-centered personality, meant to be comic relief, just seems false.
But it’s one of the few false steps in this strong new season. Before, it seemed as if Linney was single-handedly keeping the series afloat. Now The Big C looks much more like the first-rate comic-drama she deserves.
Take a look at the trailer, a little heavier on Cute than the show itself.