Friday, April 13, 2012

The Big C Season 3 Review

*Warning: Spoilers for the new season.*

The Big C started off as such a promising show. Laura Linney, a proven actress, versatile and engaging, playing a slightly repressed, good-hearted Midwestern wife and mother confronting her mortality after a Cancer diagnosis. It's maybe not the most original premise, but it's a showcase for an eminently watchable actor that you would expect to find in some one-woman off-Broadway show, only now with the benefit of good production values and famous guest stars.

The idea that each season of the show would be a season in the life of Cathy Jamison, complete with a seasonal theme taken from whatever Kubler-Ross stage seemed most interesting, was certainly hokey and facile, but at least it indicated a more focused, long-term story arc that most serial dramas lack. And in the beginning it was successful; Jamison fairly glowed with humanity as she kept the disease a secret, exploring new experiences, examining the different ways one can approach life when before she thought there was just the one, digging deep for old memories and for the strength to fight for new ones. The plot and pacing kept things interesting, forcing a Jamison focused on her own existence to confront the unexpected mortality of those around her.

Unfortunately, despite all her struggle and progress and moments of epiphany and joy, the new season has presented a different woman and a different show entirely. Frankly both are shameful.

The second season ended with an episode half heartening, in Cathy's determination to run the marathon in honor of her recently dead cancer friend, and half depressing, in her husband's apparent heart attack and death set off by a vicious, vulgar rant at an insurance company about the cost of healthcare, and caused by his recently acquired cocaine addiction, in turn funded by repeated theft from the Best Buy where he worked. Yes a grim end, as her husband's downward spiral was painful to watch and also massively uninteresting, as he is a blundering, selfish, lazy, useless character, but relieving in that he was gone and that Cathy would have this new source of grief and change to process.

Unfortunately, the show runners gave us a false cliffhanger. The third season opens and we find not only that Paul (the name finally came back to me--Oliver Platt's a decent actor but this character is ugly in every possible way) was revived by paramedics, but that the downward spiral he endured has not ended and has in fact spread to Cathy.
Some of the marketing for the new season shows Cathy with a new tongue ring and the word FEARLESS. Ostensibly that's what they're trying to show with these new episodes, that Cathy, with the recent news that her tumors are shrinking due to Alan Alda's experimental treatment, with a new lease on life, isn't afraid of anything wild or crazy or rebellious. But that's not what comes across.

Instead we get the actions of a selfish, destructive, criminally negligent woman with no respect for life despite the battle she just endured. She goes in secret to a bar everyday, where she gets drunk under a fake name and then drives to school where she teaches. She smokes cigarettes and drunkenly confronts her son in the middle of the school day, in public, to loudly confess her list of life mistakes, including cheating on his father, getting STDs in college, and doing drugs, as if the poor boy doesn't have enough trauma to deal with. She insults and flips off the principal, her boss, and then gets a tattoo over her cancer surgery scar, which is probably not the best way to avoid infection.

Much like the other leading-lady Showtime show, Weeds, The Big C has become unwatchable as it turns into a steady devolution of a once-decent character. I may not have dealt with a terminal illness in my life, but I know enough about history to know that when a man or woman is confronted with imminent death and a threat to their existence they have the option to face it with dignity, to not dismiss entirely whatever code they lived their lives by, and to give some consideration to those loved ones who will be forced to mourn and move on.

The most moving moments in the entire series have been those few occasions when her seemingly shallow, unintelligent, cookie-cutter high school male son stumbles upon his true feelings and the enormity of the situation, and the tragedy inherent when the love between a mother and a son is threatened. But she is no longer a good and loving mother, concerned with his future and emotional well-being more than her own. She has reverted to adolescence, a particularly unoriginal, unempowering, deliberately harmful one, and while that may mirror the story arc of real life cancer patients, in terms of a television drama about mortality and the journey one takes to grow up and try and face both life and death with a truer sense of self, it's an unforgivable step back, a regression that turns it into some cheap cable show written for petty thrills.

When you have Laura Linney as your lead, and a subject matter, a primal conflict, unique to every person who has ever lived, the sky's the limit. To produce a show that is now just tawdry, and shiny, and vulgar without any mature subtext, without saying anything useful about the struggle or the perspective or the state of being or the value of identity...well, it's just a goddamn shame.


  1. Well said! This show should have ended at the end of the first season when
    Adam discovers the gifts his mother left for him to have after her death. That was a sensitive and moving moment. The show since then has become more and more unbelievable.

    Louise Orkin

  2. I want to hate you because I really loved this show.

    The truth, unfortunately, is that I cannot hate you or disagree with a single word you wrote; it is true.

    In the interest of constructive criticism, what could be done to turn it around? Letting Paul's character exit would have been a start.

  3. I agree with you 100%. That scene was one of the best in TV history.

  4. I agree with you and I am mad they ruined what looked to be an interesting and promising show. I can't stand it now.

  5. My mother had a melanoma removed; (same spot) and is still undergoing repeated tests, which are nerve racking and unsettling. I do not find the show amusing, as it does not touch a cord. The evolution of the character as described will make me block it completely