In some ways you can interpret Laura Linney’s Cathy Jamison as a sympathetic revisiting of Annette Bening’s character in American Beauty (or for that matter, any female character who’s been depicted as a joyless anal-retentive henpecker). Somebody’s got to pick up the clothes and keep things together, but instead of being thanked or given a break, her loved ones all tell her she’s no fun. Well they’ll all be sorry in the end, won’t they, when mean ol’ Mom/Sis/Teacher/Wifey is dead.
The Big C’s pilot opens with Cathy urgently asking some contractors to put a pool in her back yard, and as she’s out there, her estranged husband Paul (played by Oliver Platt) comes out to ask her to work out the knots he has in his back from sleeping on his sister’s couch. I like that the series doesn’t need to show us Cathy’s stage-4 melanoma diagnosis and resulting reaction, or the disintegration of her marriage or explicitly tell us why she needs this pool so quickly: we’re just dropped in. We meet Cathy’s snotty teenage son, Adam, who finds joy in messing with his mother by pretending to be a robber, and her brother, the holier-than-thou environmentalist town crazy Sean (played by John Benjamin Hickey. Linney has history with complicated brother-sister roles).
As Cathy increasingly doesn’t give a shit about the things that used to dictate her life, we see her “teaching” her summer school students with a DVD of The Patriot, bribing backtalky student Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) to lose weight, punking her son and purposefully ruining the couch that previously stood as a symbol of her prudishness.
Part of the thrill of the pilot is the fact that Cathy holds onto her secret while there are so many people in her life who give her hell who she could make feel really shitty just by dropping the words: “I’m dying”: her manchild husband, her bratty son, her self-righteous brother, her snarky students, the mean neighbor who welcomes death—yet she keeps it to herself. I've watched three episodes so far and why she does this still isn't completely explained to my satisfaction but I'm willing to give it more time.
The show’s strong points are more evident in the second episode, as Cathy seems more determined to play out the rest of her life as she sees necessary, even if it means looking crazy to everyone else around her. However, by the third episode I started getting a little frustrated by Cathy’s secrecy, especially when it seems cruel of her not to tell her husband, who is hopelessly (and understandably) frustrated and befuddled over why she won't take him back despite his pleas. Additionally, while I can understand Cathy’s determination to make the most out of her time with Adam, even a dying mother must know that her fourteen year old son doesn’t want to go riding around town with his mom on a tandem bike decorated with streamers.
I’m still waiting for the secondary plots of the show to really kick in: obviously Cathy’s big secret is the main storyline along with how she can do the best she can with her son and Andrea, the student she takes under her wing, but I’m waiting for a bit more, a selfish goal Cathy wants to meet beyond just eating dessert for dinner, or a relationship that is mutually fulfilling (I haven’t yet seen the episodes featuring Idris Elba, so perhaps that’s to come.)
In the meantime, the cast, Linney most especially, hold up the show. I think in another actor’s hands Cathy’s attitude of “Screw it: I’m going to die soon, time to pour wine on the couch and dance around!” could be disingenuously sassy and insincere, but Linney’s just that good, even when it’s as basic as her vulnerable, open face transitioning into her beaming smile. However, it’s more fun to hear Cathy say all the things she obviously only thought before, like “You can be fat and jolly or a skinny bitch,” to Andrea, or “You’re a fucking cunt!” to her neighbor Marlene.
The supporting cast is strong as well: Paul could be played as an insensitive buffoon, but Oliver Platt and his big ol’ lumpy face comes off more as a quasi-callow man with some major self-esteem issues (there’s a funny scene of the two of them in marriage counseling in the second episode). Even though we’ve seen Jason Alexander bite into an onion for comic effect, when Platt does it, it’s touching. Adam is cut from the same bratty premium-cable TV show teenager cloth as the kids in United States of Tara and Weeds but the girlish squeal of his scream when his mom gets back at him for his prank made me decide I like the actor who plays him, Gabriel Basso. And Gabourey Sidibe gets some of the funniest lines in the show, like when she retorts “Buzz off, Jesus!” to Sean in the second episode. So far though I’m not sure how I feel about Linney’s relationship with Reid Scott as her doctor and confidante: the two have a few conversations in the early episodes of the show that go beyond the realm of regular doctor-patient, and not necessarily in an enjoyable way.
Without this strong cast I would be less optimistic about this show but I’m looking forward to seeing more, as long as the series lets Cathy let go a little bit more of her self-imposed isolation, which seems to make less and less sense as the show goes on and she ostensibly has less time to “enjoy” life. Surely there’s got to be more to your last spin around the sun than just destroying the couch without telling anyone why you’re doing it.