It’s a comfortable, familiar premise: What if you knew you only had a year or so left to live? What would you do? Walter White decided to manufacture meth in order to gain some financial security for his family after he died. Queen Latifah’s Georgia Byrd decided to take a European vacation. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, in The Bucket List, decided to sky dive.
In Showtime’s new series, “The Big C” (debuting tonight at 10:30 EST, after “Weeds”), Laura Linney’s Cathy Jamison — an uptight suburban mom — decides not to be an uptight suburban mom anymore. It’s a simple premise, and it’s one that Showtime will probably get a lot of mileage out of, as long as it remains — essentially — a dramatic comedy, and as long as it doesn’t extend itself past more than one season, two at tops. It’s enjoyable to watch someone go through a sudden transformation — it’s basically a nicer, more likable version of Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty — but once they’ve completed the transformation, there’s not much to do except wait for death to arrive. But if showrunner Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) can continue to successfully flesh-out the somewhat stock suburban character types, the final episode of “The Big C” is going to extract a lot of tears.
Cathy Jamison is a high school teacher. She’s a pushover. She’s type A. She’s boring. She likes to organize. And she’s married to a gregarious, drunken manchild, Paul (Oliver Platt, perfectly cast). She kicks Paul out, however, when she comes home from a doctor’s appointment to tell him that she has terminal melanoma, only to find him drunk, playing video games with 15 other friends. Meanwhile, she also has a homeless-by-choice brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), a hippie environmentalist, with whom she’s not on the best of terms. And there’s her son, a spoiled brat who clearly takes after his father, and with whom she’ll no doubt attempt to impart as much parental guidance as her final months will allow. Oh, and at her high school, the pilot episode focuses on a relationship she’s building with Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe), an obese student who doesn’t want to be obese anymore.
You can’t tell too much from the first half hour, but with the talent assembled, the light tone, the likable cast, and the smart writing so far, “The Big C” is a comedy I plan on sticking with through at least the first season. At the very least, it should have plenty of those impolitic but honest “I wish I’d done/said that moments,” played out onscreen, I’m sure it will be replete with easy moments like that, but I don’t suspect they’ll be any less satisfying. The only aspect of the show, so far, that I’m slightly annoyed with is the too obvious contrivance: She hasn’t told anyone that she has cancer yet. However, it is a necessary contrivance to help build the show’s dramatic momentum. I’ll only be truly annoyed if her husband doesn’t know by episode five.
“Get busy living Or get busy dying,” Morgan Freeman once famously said in a movie that was not The Bucket List. In “The Big C,” Cathy Jamison is doing both, and it looks to be a darkly comic, introspective, and enjoyable excursion. If you have Showtime, it’s well worth the viewing. And if you don’t have Showtime, there’s a free look at the first episode up on their website.