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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Big C: "Losing Patients"

Illustration for article titled The Big C: "Losing Patients"

The first season of The Big C was single-handedly redeemed by its season finale. Despite a top-notch cast, the majority of the season couldn’t sustain itself on the premise that stereotypically buttoned-up suburban tightass Cathy Jamison was suffering from terminal cancer and hiding it from her friends and family. Thanks to some cliched character types (the hippy-dippy brother, the kooky crabby neighbor, the childlike husband, the uniquely Showtime-bratty son) and occasionally weak writing, things looked dim for the season, especially as the premise of Cathy almost telling Paul and Adam of her fate lost its elasticity with each return.

Finally, with the season finale, some walls were broken down as Cathy confessed her secret to her family and decided to fight for her life. A key character, Marlene, was killed off, and once the frustrating conceit of the season was eliminated, I found what I’d been missing the whole time: actual empathy for the characters, especially as Cathy’s son realized what he’d be missing once his mom dies.

The two biggest improvements of the series are within Cathy herself and Cathy and Paul’s marriage. Laura Linney is too nuanced an actress to be confined merely to “uptight Midest lady who gets her groove back,” and it seems like the writers finally are allowing Linney to demonstrate in her own, more relaxed way, that Cathy’s more than just an orderly mom and wife, than by tired tropes like having her get drunk during the day and eat just desserts.

Second, the series feels much more relaxed now that Cathy and Paul are back together. Linney and Oliver Platt have such easy chemistry that their broken marriage of last season seemed like a waste (not to mention the over-written exposition of their breakup made it hard to picture why they were ever together in the first place.) Now together, their marriage makes sense, and their characters are a little more relaxed in their own skins.

The season premiere finds Cathy and her immediate family cautiously-optimistically figuring out what their next steps are, as Cathy seeks an appointment with a well-regarded doctor (which is good, because Cathy’s relationship with the smitten Dr. Mauer never took off for me) and gives medical marijuana a try. Meanwhile, Adam reluctantly sees a therapist (and farts a lot). The only serious issues are that Cathy keeps seeing visions of now-dead Marlene, who tries to get her to come join her in heaven, and the fact that Cathy still hasn’t told Sean about her cancer. Sean is attempting to settle into his version of domestic bliss, living in a tent in Marlene’s yard as his pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca, actually lives in the house.

Despite being played by veteran actors (John Benjamin Hickey and Cynthia Nixon), Sean and Rebecca are still frustratingly underdeveloped. Rebecca I don’t mind so much, since she’s a relatively minor character to date, but I wish the show would give Sean more nuance other than just making him disgusting and obnoxious. When he does finally find out about Cathy’s cancer, he does not react with the grief and fear he did when she first tried to tell him in season one. He’s predictably awful, and Cathy finally tells him off, in a way, but what I really wanted was for her to punch him in his grimy face.


I could have lived without the ghostly Marlene element of the episode right up until the very last scene, which came perilously close to making my eyes wet (if you’re a dog lover, you may have the same reaction.) When she smiles, the actress who plays Marlene, Phyllis Somerville, is one of the most beautiful on television.

I’ve watched the first three episodes of The Big C, and plotwise, the series doesn’t exactly seem to plummet along at rocket speed. But I enjoyed watching the episodes so much more than last season, where so much talent seemed squandered. This season, the writers of The Big C seem to know better, and, when it comes to its actors, the show gets out of the way.


Stray observations:

  • Oliver Platt’s delivery renders so many lines funnier than I think they were written: “That little boy kissed you?” “Dr. Mauer. It is it not okay for you to kiss my wife.” “I don’t give a shit about your journey!”
  • Is there anybody here who is familiar with people suffering late stage cancer? A.) Does Laura Linney look unusually hale for a cancer patient? and B.) I am very sorry if you know enough about cancer firsthand to answer this question.
  • It’s funny how Cynthia Nixon is in many ways playing The Big C’s version of Samantha Jones.