The Big C: “Face Off”
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The Big C: “Face Off”

In its third season, The Big C, a show that originally conceived to give Laura Linney a chance to earn an Emmy by showing how graciously she could confront death on a weekly basis, is looking more and more like The Oliver Platt Show. On an especially ripe night, it’s The Oliver Platt Show with John Benjamin Hickey, and Hickey’s job seems to be to make you think, to paraphrase something Richard Pryor once said about prisons, thank God we’ve got Oliver Platt. Tonight, Sean’s wacky adventures in the phone-sex trade were barely featured; they just gave him something distractingly weird and pervy to do while he was talking to Cathy, which I take to be the writers’ way of saying, “Look, we don’t care what they’re saying, and we know you don’t either, but there’s this necessary evil called ‘exposition.’” This meant there was that much more time to devote to the storyline involving Paul’s sudden lust to use his health scare as a launching pad for a career as an inspirational self-help messiah.

The big scene last week had Paul being dragged onstage by Susan Sarandon’s Joy and discovering that he was a natural speaker. The big scene tonight has Paul getting on stage on purpose, and, in the process, learning that transitioning from natural speaker to professional bullshit artist is harder than it looks. He prepares for his speech by trying to come up with the perfect catch phrase to go on the T-shirts and tote bags; possible contenders include “Reach For The Light” (“It’s a little corny, but sometimes need a little cheese to bring ‘em out.”) and “Heaven Sent Me.” Cathy all but visibly recoils from this, and it is, make no mistake, a spectacle to make a sane person cringe. But let the first among us has never “worked on his book” by daydreaming about what the jacket photo would look like, and preparing answers to the questions that Charlie Rose has yet to ask, throw the first stone.

The tent show gets off to a predictably dismal start, with Paul sweating anxiously through his supposedly slenderizing compression shirt and failing to convince anyone within the sound of his voice that “Paul power!” is the new “Where’s the beef!?” But then, gradually, he gets past his shtick and starts to become real again, with spectacular results. He even creates a spontaneously generated catch phrase—”Flip that switch!”—that catches on like wildfire with the crowd. It’s a dumb, obvious conceit, and I’m not sure that it’s believable that the same audience that had already tuned out on him completely would remain receptive enough to suddenly respond when he begins to project, “Hey, forget that phony guy I was a second ago, this here before you know is the real me!” Platt really sells it, though, and there’s a choice scene between him and Gabourey Sidbe when she walks out on stage when his heart rate begins to fluctuate. In classic carny barker fashion, Paul explains that the device in her hand “will determine whether my heart needs to be jolted back to normalcy.” The wide smile with which Sidbe says, “It does!” justifies every minute she’s spent on this show, twiddling her thumbs.

Poor Linney is stuck holding up her end of the story line involving Cathy and Paul’s sudden, mystifying desire to adopt a child. The two of them arrange to have dinner with a young couple they me through Paul’s blog, who are looking for the right parents for the baby they’re going to give up. (They’re played by Mamie Gummer, of The Good Wife, and Hamish Linklater, of The New Adventures Of Old Christine and the Miranda July movie The Future. With her eager eyes and grin and his heavy brows and diffident manner, they’re a very weird pair; you half expect a revelation scene in which each discovers that the other is a freaky con artist who’s pretending to be a clean-cut family-values type, in order to get close to the money that they’re both only pretending to have.) Naturally, there’s another couple in competition for the baby, who, being younger and cancer-free. seems like a better bet. But the couple agrees to hold off on making their decision until they can meet Adam and see for themselves how awesomely hard Cathy and Paul rock as parents. 

Paul, of course, is late, because he’s so caught up in his own self-help guru thing, which seems to indicate how important becoming a father again really is to him, compared to doing something that might make him interesting to groupies and Oprah. That’s bad enough. But the big joke of the dinner scene—in fact, the title of the episode—comes from the fact that Cathy, feeling insecure about her age, makes a pathetic attempt to make herself seem more like mommy material by getting a botched facial, so that by the time the dinner rolls around, her red peeling face is like a bust of Laura Linney sculpted from Tandoori chicken. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the sort of thing that would have been rejected at a table read of I Love Lucy, on the grounds that the star deserved something less physically humiliating, never mind less hackneyed. It all comes out fine; Adam takes a private meeting with the prospective baby donors and convinces them that his parents are terrific, waiting until he’s alone with Cathy and Paul to say, “I lied.” But it’s a sorry thing that The Big C, a show that once appeared to be intended as a celebration of the talents of its leading lady, now can’t figure out a way to get through another week without playing practical jokes on her.

Stray observations:

  • Cathy, anticipating how well the dinner is going to go: “They’ll meet Adam, and they’ll see what good parents we are!” Paul, with no decrease in enthusiasm: “Nine days out of 10!”
  • To give John Benjamin Hickey his due, I laughed when he told Cathy about how deeply Adam has been getting with his church friends and, zeroing in on the are likely to be most of interest to a teenage boy, added, “There are some hot chicks in that group. Turns out, God is good!”
  • “Nervousness is excitement turned inward,” Joy tells Paul before his big debut, adding, “Deepok taught me that.” Funny thing: I think I learned that from watching Susan Sarandon movies.
  • I didn’t want to say anything about it that might disrupt the flow, but now that we’re down here in the Stray observations: Is it just me, or is there something awfully suggestive about the phrase “Susan Sarandon’s Joy”? I almost feel like getting my drums out and starting a band, just so we can use that as our name.

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