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Now and Then: Obituary for 'The Big C,' Starring Luminous Laura Linney

Television
by Matt Brennan
May 22, 2013 12:18 PM
5 Comments
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Laura Linney, with Alan Alda, in Showtime's "The Big C"

Cathy Jamison was a brave bitch. Through four seasons of Showtime's "The Big C," which ended its run Monday, she suffered the indignities of metastatic melanoma, chemotherapy, brain tumors, hospice, and bad insurance, yet remained steadfast in her belief that "surviving" and "living" do not necessarily amount to the same thing. She will be missed.     

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that Cathy eventually succumbed to the disease. Her death was not a plot point. It was, rather, the series' structuring logic: creator Darlene Hunt's sardonic comedy of cancer thrived not on the hope for miracles but on the certainty of death. "Your insides are dying, too," Cathy tells a mall worker who makes a ham-handed effort to sympathize with her plight. "Right now. Every day."

A brave bitch -- her words, not mine -- indeed. Like the other women of premium cable in recent years (Nancy Botwin, Jackie Peyton, Hannah Horvath, Amy Jellicoe) Cathy could be mean-spirited, selfish, irrational, desperate, difficult. Not "a cancer patient," in other words, but a human being who tried to make sense of sickness in much the same way her televisual peers dealt with widowhood, addiction, ennui, rage: warts and all.

Early in Season 1, she hid her diagnosis from her husband (Oliver Pratt), her son (Gabriel Basso), and her brother (John Benjamin Hickey), but she could not hide her sudden desire to make something of middle age in Minneapolis. She had a pool dug in the backyard, poured wine on the couch and set it on fire, ate dessert for lunch, cartwheeled down the hallway, tried Ecstasy for the first time. She lived, as the cliche goes, like she was dying.

In this, "The Big C" struck its share of sentimental notes. Cathy's plaint, in the pilot, that she wanted to be the one "to spill the fruit punch" did not mark a new way of thinking about our last days. Yet as she transitioned from defiance to treatment to remission and finally to acceptance -- each of these the central theme of an entire season -- the series' warmth became reassuringly familiar, a slightly zany analogue to cancer's winding path through real lives.

Cathy's sometimes-faltering grace, depicted with extraordinary compassion and subtlety by Laura Linney, shored up a "comedy" swimming in death and its portents. For Cathy's every action -- having an affair, buying a convertible, running a marathon -- there was an unequal and opposite reaction -- a suicide, a miscarriage, a heart attack.

Linney and Phyllis Somerville in "The Big C"

"People die everywhere," she told Paul.

"Would you mind getting your shit off the counter so I can buy my irises and plant them before I die?" she entreated a rude woman at Home Depot.

"Summers in Minneapolis are very short," she lamented to her neighbor, the curmudgeonly Marlene (Phyllis Somerville). "They're here, and then it's over. Over! And I can't tell you how mad that makes me!"

Despite its affinities with "Weeds," "Nurse Jackie," "Girls," and "Enlightened," "The Big C" rarely received the same sustained critical attention, perhaps because of the central narrative's accompanying amalgam of strange subplots and guest spots, which always seemed like thin attempts to pander to Showtime's self-consciously "kooky" sensibility.

But that narrative, balancing its bleak destination against Cathy's effort to slow time's forward march, was unfairly neglected. Cathy's was not the only bravery on display in "The Big C." Death is everywhere on television, but nowhere was it explored with the same keen attention to its inevitability, to the grief that not only follows but also precedes it. In a disagreement with her oncologist (Alan Alda) in the final season, Cathy sniped that she'd be out of his hair soon -- she'd be dead. He responded with what might be considered the series' credo: "Which makes you special how?"

Even in Cathy's most sentimental moment -- when she learned that Adam had been taking online classes so she could see him graduate from high school, a year early -- the look in Linney's blue eyes, glassy with tears, bespoke both the sorrow she felt at the prospect of dying, and the joy she felt at having actually lived. For all its foibles, I kept returning to "The Big C" because it refused in this way to make death "special," to cloak it in glorified fusillades of bullets or the saccharine perfection of a family arranged at the bedside. Instead Cathy Jamison died, at 44, of an aneurysm, after an 18-month illness. She was at home, alone except for the hospice nurse, with whom she enjoyed a final bite of strawberry-rhubarb pie. And she finally got her pool.

All four seasons of "The Big C" are now available on Showtime Anytime. Seasons 1-3 are available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.



5 Comments

  • KT | June 17, 2014 9:06 PMReply

    I liked this summary and commentary a lot. I cried my eyes out after watching the finale. I'll miss Cathy and her family. I wish they had shown her funeral, that would have given me more closure with the other characters.

  • Marie | June 2, 2013 8:29 PMReply

    The final show, when the nurse went in to get the pie, I knew it has poison in it....I looked over at my husband and said, she is the one to peform the mercy killing.....of course, she did it....they talked about it during the show, her alternatives....Why do you think she gave the nurse the $400.00? It was a tip right there, read between the lines.....such an excellent show.....will so miss it.....

  • Anne Saulovich | May 25, 2013 2:36 AMReply

    So sad to say goodbye to this show. Btw, something about the nurse and the Rhubarb pie... I wonder if the pie was the kiss of death... Apparently Rhubarb leaves contain poisonous substances. According to Wikipedia, "Cooking the leaves with soda can make them more poisonous by producing soluble oxalates."

  • Matt Brennan | May 28, 2013 11:35 PM

    Credit to you, Anne and Teresa, I did not even consider that! But it makes sense, given the assisted suicide discussion that pervades "The Big C: Hereafter," even if it wasn't the rhubarb alone that did the trick. I like the idea of Cathy deciding her fate, in a way, which is in some sense the overarching theme of the series: to take control in the small ways we can, because life itself will always be in control in the big ways.

    My only doubt about this reading is that the series, while searching and in many ways audacious, was never quite so subtle; Cathy's actions always came appended with an explicit explanation or rationale. The so-unassuming-you'd-miss-it wink The Rhubarb Theory would seem to require is a little out of character for "The Big C," don't you think?

  • Teresa | May 25, 2013 1:20 PM

    That's what I thought, the pie was laced with something by ina

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