Of all the original Showtime series, The Big C probably has the easiest access to A-list celebrity guest stars, because you’d have to combine the reclusiveness of Marlon Brando with the orneriness of Ty Cobb to be able to say “no” to Laura Linney—and even if you did, your mother would never speak to you again. Whether the show always knows how to use its guest stars is another matter. Liam Neeson’s appearance as himself (“Now let’s do some improvisational comedy!”) was the unquestioned high point of the series première of Life’s Too Short, and over the course of seven episodes, I’m not sure that the show ever found any way to top him, but his drop-in during the first season of The Big C (as a crackpot with a bee-sting cancer cure) only rated a smile, and he had more magnetism than his flimsy role could support.
Susan Sarandon, kicking off her own story arc on tonight’s episode, fares much better. She plays another would-be healer with a suspect agenda, a motivational speaker named Joy Kleinman who describes herself as a “life coach, cancer survivalist, and joyologist.” (“Is that even a word?” asks Paul. “Unclear,” says Cathy.) Cathy drags Paul to one of Joy’s seminars, over his protestations. (“Don’t make me interact with a crystal. Or go in a sweat lodge. People die in sweat lodges.”) Having only recently been baptized in the waters of social media, Paul is inclined to distrust Joy as soon as he visits her Facebook page and learns that she has “23,000 fuckin’ followers!” When Paul and Cathy actually meet Joy, she says something about Cathy’s illness, and Cathy asks, “How did you know I have cancer!?” in a way that suggests that she’d readily accept “I can see into the farthest recesses of your soul” as an answer. Instead, Joy says, “I read your husband’s blog.” At that point, Paul injects the Kool-Aid directly into his heart.
Cathy is a harder sell. Joy, who addresses the people at her seminar as “voyagers” and peddles nasty-looking health drinks, encourages her followers to run around with girly looking backpacks filled with rocks, because what good is a symbol if the slowest kid in the room might not get it. She has her own self-generated mythology, which her real fans are so well-versed in that, when she talks about having gotten her own diagnosis of breast cancer, she can tell a packed house, “You know what I did?” secure in the knowledge that one happy camper will shout back, “You went to Sedona!” In the inspirational-bullshit tradition of Norman Cousins, she encourages her charges to laugh, because laughter “releases endorphins,” and also “beats the hell out of crying.” She also incorporates the kind of crowd-pleasing inspirational rhetoric that celebrates the therapeutic value of a good shopping spree. “These,” she says, pointing to her shoes, “aren’t from Target, people. You might call them fuck-me shoes. But you know what I call them? My fuck-you shoes. Fuck you, cancer!”
Cathy is less than persuaded by all this. (And Joy, it turns out, can play hardball. After Cathy fails to fall into line, the key to the minibar in Cathy and Paul’s room goes missing.) The big scene tonight comes when Cathy tells Joy that she sees through her crap, at which point Joy makes the glorious announcement that, of course, she’s been looking for the one true disciple who will be smart enough to see that everything she says is crap and honest enough to tell her that to her face, and Cathy is, at long last, The One—whereupon Cathy falls like a ton of bricks. It’s an ambiguous ending for this episode; Joy isn’t presented as an obvious con artist, though that may just be because Sarandon knows how to make any foolishness seem persuasive. Cathy may yet see through her again, in a way that Joy can’t transform into a vote of confidence, but for now, the more intriguing possibility exists that the show might get into whether or not bullshit might sometimes have an actual therapeutic effect, for a while. I seem to recall that Norman Cousins did wind up outliving one or two of his doctors.
- The episode begins with Cathy, in the throes of some adrenaline rush, giddily painting cuss words on her walls. Paul walks in and says, “Honey, why are you tagging the living room?” Her explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense, and nothing that follows really connects with this moment, but it’s worth any amount of naked contrivance to kick off an episode with Oliver Platt delivering a line like that.
- Thanks in no small part to Platt’s way with a laugh line, the show continues to have more fun with Paul’s grappling with the basics of social media than seems possible. I love the moment when he hears a beep signaling the arrival of a new Tweet, pulls his phone out of his pocket, glares at it and mutters, “Fuckin’ Alec Baldwin!”
- So far, I can’t quite get a handle on the subplot involving Adam and his immersion in teen-Christian culture. Tonight, he attends an event featuring a Christian rock group and asks his new lady friend, “I don’t get it. Is this church or a concert?” At first, I thought he might be doing all this just to make time with the girl, but he continues to keep the religious culture itself at arm’s length, whereas most guys who were interested in her would be speaking in tongues by now.
- At least Adam’s subplot ties in neatly with the larger theme of people finding a dogma that they may or may not want to subscribe to. I’m not sure the same can be said for Sean’s new pursuit of lucre by acting as a purveyor of gay phone sex, and Andrea’s storyline about getting in touch with her African roots is now looking like such a non-starter that tonight, the show simply folds her into Sean’s story by having him take her to dinner to get her mind off having been “left at the altar by some Ukranian dipshit.” It’s a nice touch, though, that the only restaurant they can get last-minute reservations at on Valentine’s Day is someplace called the Garlic Haus. And I did like Sean’s line about the physical and emotional toll wrought by his new job: “I have lonely man cauliflower ear!”
- I know life is complicated, but I have a possibly irrational hatred of TV episodes that feature holidays that actually occurred a month or so before the episodes themselves air. It’s especially irritating given that Law & Order: SVU just ran a Valentine’s Day episode, cunningly titled “Valentine’s Day,” five days ago. If you missed it, Chloë Sevigny, who was married to the head of the television department at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, was attacked in her kitchen by a rapist-kidnapper, in full view of her husband, who was in an airport, watching the whole thing on Skype. Her story began to fall apart when the cops caught her trying to pick up the ransom money for herself. It was the first L&O:SVU I’ve seen in a while, so I don’t know how long Hank Moody’s been writing for the show.