"We're unkillable!" Paul (Oliver Platt) exclaims to his wife Cathy (Laura Linney), after he's run out of the house barefoot, in the dead of winter, to pull her out of a pit filled with icy water. That's starting to like as if it might just be the case. Diagnosed with stage IV melanoma when The Big C began its first season back in the summer of 2010, Cathy is entering her third season of being brave and plucky in the face of imminent death. Death has proved to be less imminent than it once may have appeared, and "brave and plucky," while solidly in Laura Linney's wheelhouse, doesn't make for as promising a show as the wild acting-out that Cathy engaged in during the show's first season, back when she threw Paul out of the house (without informing him about her condition) and balled Idris Elba while both of them were lying, bare-ass naked, in that pit (which is the product of an aborted attempt to construct a swimming pool and which was not, on that particular night, filled with icy water).
Closeness to death, or maybe a reluctance to firmly cut ties with good actors who've been written out of the show, has endowed Cathy with the ability to see the dead, such as her former next-door neighbor Marlene (the scene-stealing Phyllis Somerville), who committed suicide after she began showing increasing signs of Alzheimer's-related dementia, and Lee (Hugh Dancy), her fellow patient in a clinical trial for a new cancer drug. There was a powerfully affecting moment at the end of the previous season finale when Cathy, approaching the finish line at the end of a marathon, saw that the friends cheering her on included Marlene, Lee—and Paul, who was actually stretched out on the floor at the offices of an insurance company, having a heart attack. (For what it's worth, I've read that Cathy's previous sightings of dead people may have been hallucinations, but since she had no way of knowing what was going on with Paul at that minute, this scene would appear to confirm that she literally sees ghosts. Either that, or somebody had a clever idea that they didn't think through.)
In the opening of the new season premiere, Cathy, hanging out at a bar (tended by Lee Tergesen), refers to herself as a "widow." Somebody's a big tease, because a scene later, it turns out that Paul is alive and at home and, if not altogether well, blogging about his near-death experience. So far as medical issues are concerned, it's Paul who dominates this episode. (Alan Alda's Dr. Sherman stops by just long enough to assure Cathy that's she the rare test subject who's responding brilliantly to the treatment, so don't be too surprised if it turns out she has several more seasons left in her.) One handy source of slapstick comedy is a device assigned to Paul by a character he refers to as "Nurse Mumbledoom," which tends to his ailing heart by administering an electrical shock. (He's advised to, "if possible, lie down" first.) In a moment of hypochondrical panic, Paul begs Cathy to give him a shock, but she demurs, saying, "I can't intentionally hurt you." Not too suprisingly, he fires back, "C'mon, you've had your moments." It isn't until Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe), back from Africa and determined to get more in touch with her black identity ("You know who I see in my head every night when I go to sleep? Freakin' white Jesus!") sits on the thing that we get the chance to confirm that it even works. After the resulting jolt sends Paul smacking into the wall behind him, she says admiringly, "For a big man, you can really move!"
The fact that Paul wasn't really dead dead, just "I saw a blinding light and then I looked up and saw all these EMTs staring down at me" dead, when Cathy saw him at the end of that run, is kind of a disappointment. In context, when it was still open-ended, that scene suggested a way to insert the threat of mortality into a show that is supposed to be all about that, but that sometimes leaves the impression that building an ongoing TV series around a protagonist with a terminal illness is an unworkable gimmick unless he starts cooking meth. On the other hand, it's easy to understand why the makers of this show wouldn't want to lose Oliver Platt. Platt and Linney are The Big C's ace in the hole: They're always worth watching, and the chance to work with them (or be reunited with them) must be a big part of the show's attraction for guest stars such as Elba, Alda, and Liam Neeson. She's wonderful in scenes such as the one in the bar, when she says that she'd opt to fuck Willie Nelson, marry Helena Bonham Carter, and "hurt" Lady Gaga, sweetly pulling back from saying "kill," even when she's letting her hair down and is half in the bag. And Platt can make a meal of a line like Paul's question about Groundhog Day: "Is that based on any kind of real science?" (It's the "real" that kills me.)
Groundhog Day comes up because Paul is obsessed with when spring is coming, and Cathy is in Lee Tergesen's bar at least partly so that he can tell her that the clock on the wall is set to "bartender's time"—i.e., he deliberately keeps it five minutes fast to make sure that he doesn't pour somebody a drink past curfew. "You mean everybody who leaves here gets extra time?" exclaims Cathy. It's writing-class metaphors like these that keep The Big C from achieving full lift-off for a full season at a time. The show has too much talent on display to be fully negligible, and after two full seasons, it's still promising, a double-edged compliment if ever there was one. But it wants to be a smart take on the subject of knowing that your time could be cut short at any minute and that you may never live to see winter melt away, and too often, it's content to be a tasteful one. Terminal illness needs to be met with something wilder and fierier than good taste. Here's hoping we don't wait six more weeks before that something arrives.
- Three seasons in, which cast members who stick around forever on The Big C are almost as random as which characters on Weeds decide they have to attach themselves to Mary-Louise Parker come hell or high water; it's hard to be sure why Cynthia Nixon's character had to pull up stakes and cut ties completely with Cathy and her family, while Adrian went from being Cathy's student to moving in with her so she wouldn't have to go to Africa to going to Africa anyway before coming back, except that Cynthia Nixon had something else going on in her career and Gabourey Sidibe is very happy to keep taking Showtime's money.