In its fake-offbeat, “quality TV” way, The Big C is just as predictably formulaic as any science-based crime procedural with an alphabet-soup title. The characters may not begin each episode by being handed a murder case they have to solve by the time the hour’s up, but even if their lives are wide open with possibilities—especially compared to those of us who, unlike Cathy, Paul, and Sean, actually have jobs to go to, and who would have to worry about things like food and shelter if we didn’t—the number of moves they’re capable of making are extremely limited. Paul will affirm his essential foolishness by latching onto a series of enthusiasms, each more ill-conceived than the last, and pursuing them in such a half-cocked way that he’s sure to be a source of misery, or at least aggravation, to the people who love him.
Cathy, the woman with terminal illness who never sees the inside of a doctor’s office anymore (unless she needs something for her meant-to-be-touchy but actually creepy and unhinged campaign to adopt a child), will put up with this nonsense for as long as she can, then blow off steam by doing something crazy and/or naughty, for which we are not meant to judge her harshly, because doing something crazy and/or naughty when you have the grim reaper crushing on you is meant to be life-affirming, especially when you’re Laura Linney. (Unlike its stablemate, Nurse Jackie, this is not a show that wants to threaten the viewer’s easy identification with its heroine.) Maybe my least favorite parts of the show are those endings that have Cathy doing something “wild”—tonight, she smashes a hole in a wall of her house, because she wants to install a window with a “southern exposure” in what’s going to be the nursery—as a way of saying “Screw you!” to someone who’s gotten in her way, and, by extension, death itself. (Paul has told her that he doesn’t think they can afford her adventurous remodeling plans, and then, when she’s still reeling from that, has the audacity to suggest that this may not be the greatest time in their lives to bring a baby into it.)
Paul is rethinking the whole adoption thing, and adding insult to injury by spending money to spruce up his wardrobe at the same time he’s raining on the nursery parade, because he wants to impress Rita Strauss (Allison Janney), a big-time moviemaker to whom Joy introduced him. We know right away what a big deal this is supposed to be, because Paul’s version of “Hello” when he meets Rita Strauss goes, “Holy crap, your movies are awesome!” My best guess is that Rita Strauss is supposed to remind us of Kathryn Bigelow, just because she’s a woman who makes action movies and has won an Academy Award. I guess we could give the show some credit and assume that it’s not trying to play that game where it flatters/insults the simple folk at home by letting them feel like insiders, except that when Andrea congratulates Rita on that Oscar win, Rita says, “Did you see Harvey’s face when I walked past him? It was like I shit in his dinner.” The House That Tarantino Built may not be what it used to be, but there’s something about the name “Harvey” that is still thought to have magical properties when conveying cheekiness and street cred when telling provincial audiences about The Industry. Rita adores Paul’s blog, and she’d like to discuss turning his story into a movie.
Naturally, the big dinner scene with Cathy, Paul, Joy, and Rita—a social event that, due to one of those little Desilu-style quirks of timing, forces Cathy and Paul to cancel a Very Important Meeting with an adoption lawyer—is a strained nightmare of show business phoniness, self-congratulatory humor, and velvet-lined callousness. (The gales of unpleasant laughter coming from the table, from everyone except Cathy, would be enough to drive anyone within earshot to consider starting a Fight Club. If I were their waiter, they’d be getting a little something extra in their clam chowder.) Still, the whole thing would just be something to grit your teeth through if it weren’t for the moment when Cathy delivers one of her rhapsodies about life and love, and Rita says that she’d like to include the speech in the movie she wants to make about Paul: It could serve as Cathy’s last words.
As soon as Cathy realizes that Rita has already killed her off in the movie she’s making in her head, all the careful buffing and ass-kissing that Rita has done—talking about how “schoolteachers are the real heroes of this country” and promising that Cathy will be played in the movie by “Sandy” Bullock—means nothing. There’s actually a good satirical idea buried here, and because of the crude use to which it’s been put, that just makes the scene worse. Have the people working on The Big C never met a slick, superficial Hollywood player? Given their own place in the great chain of being, that seems unlikely. Do they really think that a seasoned pro, someone whose ability to function requires her to seduce people much more savvy than Cathy and Paul, would drop the ball like this, and kill a deal they wanted by practically saying to someone’s face that they’re looking forward to their death, so that they can—in Cathy’s words—“make a buck off it and win an award”?
It’s a missed opportunity, in more ways than one. If Rita had roped Cathy in, at least for a while, and then it had only slowly dawned on Cathy where this was going, there would have been something that might not just illuminate the process by which people agree to be used by filmmakers who are themselves a complex mixture of artist and vulture, and it might have also served to tie this season together. Instead, the show throws all nuance and plausibility out the window, because it can’t wait for Rita to reveal, in no uncertain terms, what an unfeeling monster she is—and also, by the way, what a monster Paul seems to be now, since he barely bats an eye at the turn the conversation has taken.
As originally conceived, Paul appeared to be an irresponsible, childish man who wasn’t equipped to give his wife the full support she’d be needing during her health crisis, assuming she was ever going to get around to telling him she was sick. Cathy’s keeping her loved ones in the dark about her condition remains one of the cruelest things anyone has done on this show, but the show seems to buy the idea that she did it, at least partly, out of kindness. The end of the episode seems to be setting her up for another affair, or at least for her to be considering it. (She has a meet-cute in Lee Tergesen’s bar with a guy who first takes her for the bartender. Harvey would have sent that scene back for rewrites.) Which is fine; whatever gets you through the night, and all that. But Paul seems to be becoming more and more of a pain in the ass in order to justify whatever Cathy decides she has to do in order to put up with him.
- Since I made so much of the show’s failure to make Janney’s character believable as a creature whose behavior is adjusted to some commonly recognized human standard, I should acknowledge that the behavior of the other characters isn’t all that believable, either. Cathy’s first reaction upon hearing Janney rhapsodizing about how beautifully she’s planning to kill her off onscreen is to get into an argument with her about the audience response: Don’t people prefer movies with happy endings? (Janney shuts her down by citing Terms Of Endearment and Gladiator.)
- Sean gets to chatting with one of his phone-sex customers and ends up meeting the guy for dinner—just for smiles, y’understand, because Sean isn’t gay, and he figures the guy he feeds masturbation fantasies to over the phone will get it and just enjoy meeting a cool new friend. I can’t figure out of this is supposed to mind-blowing stupidity, disarming innocence, or something more akin to passive-aggressive mind-fucking on Sean’s part, though it does set up my favorite line of the night, when Sean tells Cathy that his phone buddy likes him. “He liked Willie Wanker,” she says, “How high can the bar be?”
- Least favorite line of the night? It’s a toss-up, but both belong to Sean: “I’m gonna bite down on those nipples like hairy little Gummy Bears,” and—in response to catching Adam in bed with his girlfriend and being told that “protection” isn’t an issue, because they only have anal sex—“If she’s saving the bush, don’t touch the tush!”