How do you make a show about a person who’s dying of cancer and have it not be depressing? AMC has answered that question with Breaking Bad (set to return for Season 4 next month) and Showtime’s answer is The Big C, a series about her woman who’s struggling to get a grip on her life after learning that she has Stage IV melanoma.
Last season ended with Cathy’s son Adam learning about her disease and coming to realize just how serious the situation is. Season 2 picks up with Cathy (Laura Linney) determined to beat her cancer and trying desperately to get an appointment with Dr. Atticus Sherman (Alan Alda), a doctor/magician who may be able to get her into a clinical trial, which could be the key to a cure for her disease. Cathy’s husband Paul (Oliver Platt) is trying to be the supportive, loving husband that Cathy needs, but he’s as new to cancer as his wife as and taking things as they come. You get the sense that they're together in this, for better or worse. Meanwhile, their son Adam (Gabriel Basso) is still adjusting to learning the truth about his mother’s illness, and part of that comes with added attention at school now that her diagnosis is public knowledge. Finally, Cathy’s mentally unstable brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) is preparing to be a father, having impregnated Cathy’s old college friend Rebecca (Cynthia Nixon).
Marlene (Phyllis Somerville) may be dead, but she isn’t gone. The older woman took her own life last season after her dementia nearly caused her to shoot Adam. Now Sean has taken up residence in her house and Marlene is appearing to Cathy in brief hallucinations. Using a deceased character's ghost to give us an opportunity to get further into the mind of the lead character isn’t a new tactic. It’s worked nicely for Dexter and Rescue Me and it works just as well on The Big C. Death now has a face and a voice for Cathy. Marlene’s “ghost” gives Cathy a chance to say what few things she isn’t able to share with the other people in her lives. It also gives us more Phyllis Somerville, which is a bonus.
Gabourey Sidibe returns to her role as Andrea, the bluntly honest student at the school where Cathy teaches, and based on some developments that take place within the first few episodes, it looks like she might be around a bit more than she was last season. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. Andrea’s outlook on life and the way she handles herself with Cathy and her family offers some refreshing perspective to everything that’s going on. She’s an outsider to the situation, but she cares and she isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind.
In The Big C Cathy’s cancer isn’t the focus of the show so much as the issues surrounding it are. The cancer is the catalyst to force her to face her life and the decisions she needs to make going forward, whether it be to beat the disease or to prepare for the end of her life. We're brought along for the ride, and like Cathy, it's frustrating not knowing how this story is going to end. In Season 1, we began to see her finding the balance between accepting her diagnosis and finding a way to fit it into her life. Season 2 has Cathy moving forward with treatment and trying to adjust to her new reality. We see her and Paul struggling to find a new balance in their marriage as they attempt to deal with her illness. Meanwhile, Adam deals with the situation and the attention he’s receiving at school by shifting his social behavior in a way that could become a problem.
Linney’s portrayal as a terminally ill person is somewhat similar to what we see in Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad, except instead of rage and a lot of meth-cooking, Cathy uses humor, sarcasm and some spontaneous choices as a way to handle the stress and frustration of her situation. Linney’s performance is no less potent than Bryan Cranston’s in the AMC drama. We feel Cathy’s pain as much through her humor and sarcasm in The Big C as we feel Walter White’s rage. I make these comparisons because, while The Big C may not be as intense as Breaking Bad, it’s no less emotional and oftentimes heart-wrenching.
While I didn’t require a box of tissues to get through the first few episodes of Season 2, I did laugh a lot and I expect to shed tears at some point. This is what I’ve signed up for by becoming a regular viewer to a show like this. It’s happy and sad and frustrating, but behind all of it, there’s a layer of hope. The Big C manages to find the heart and the strength in a woman’s struggle with her disease, while also working in humor and some surprises to keep the story entertaining and the characters fresh and real. Season 2 continues what the first season started. Expect more great performances by Linney and the rest of the cast, and some interesting developments among each of the main characters as the season progresses.
The Big C Season 2 premieres Monday, June 27th at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT Showtime.