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The Big C: Season 2 Premiere

By Matt Meier · June 29, 2011

Evaluating the comedic value of anything is a rather arbitrary process.  Like poetry, there is no truly objective perspective on the subject, but rather a visceral reflex of sorts:  either you connect with it, or you don’t.  Thus I have no intention of arguing that The Big C is simply an “unfunny” show – clearly it tickled a large enough audience to garner a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Comedy and a win for Best Actress.  Instead, I will say simply this: I think The Big C is an entirely necessary and truly valuable show for its regular viewers, viewers who see the show as a comedic beacon of inspiration and hope surrounding one woman’s ability to laugh in the face of her own impending death.  I can also say with equal confidence, however, that I am NOT one of those people.

Fans of the show will likely enjoy the same mixture of gruesome truths and lighthearted laughs that characterized the show’s first season.  The premiere begins with Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) waking in the hospital from a trippy dream that essentially highlights all her fears and anxieties from the previous season – her nervousness in telling her brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) that she has stage four melanoma, the residual trauma from the suicide of Marlene (her former elderly neighbor, played by Phyllis Somerville), the romantic advances of Dr. Todd Mauer (who tried to kiss Cathy last season; played by Reid Scott), and the emotional distress of her son Adam (Gabriel Basso) as he struggles to come to terms with his mother’s condition. 

Shortly into the episode, Dr. Todd informs Cathy that he’ll be stopping her treatment, which has been unsuccessful thus far, so Cathy opts for a second opinion from Dr. Atticus Sherman (Alan Alda).  Meanwhile, Adam begrudgingly sees a psychologist (at the request of his mother) in order to more adequately deal with his mother’s cancer.  The episode also features other comedic moments, including Cathy’s hallucinations of Marlene, a confrontation between Paul (her husband, played by Oliver Platt) and Dr. Todd, medical marijuana, and an “aggressive farting” problem.

The Big C seems to exist in its own extension of reality, requiring that same “suspension of disbelief” as other Showtime series such as Weeds, Californiacation, and the recently terminated United States of Tara in which the show teeters between real-life issues and a sense of fantastical absurdity that can only exist within the confines of the television universe.  Generally speaking, I find this style of comedy enjoyable and entertaining when applied to the proper subject material – its success in Californiacation derives from the fact that the show is a writer’s story, and thus is allowed to deviate more than usual from the basic expectations of real life (the absurd plot lines, the frequently over-the-top dialogue, etc.).  But The Big C is not a show about a sex-addict writer:  it’s about a woman dying of stage four melanoma, a condition with a survival rate of less than 15%.  With that ominous sense of mortality hanging overhead, fart jokes suddenly seem to lose their comedic edge.

Don’t get me wrong. I completely sympathize with the notion of battling despair with positive energy, and I understand what an important role it plays within the grieving process.  When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer sometime around the year 2000, we were told she had roughly five months left to live.  We were heartbroken, to say the least, but luckily, her five-month death sentence turned into five more years, most of which were filled with laughter.  Of course things seem perfect when a disease is in remission – it’s when the vacation ends that reality sets in.  After four inspiring good years, the cancer returned, and suddenly, the once independent woman became a shell of her former self, barely able to function on her own.  As a Catholic woman, she (and even more so, my father) struggled to suppress a sense of bitterness surrounding her illness – a miraculous four years of good health are easy to forget when you’re staring death in the eye once again.  But most of all, above all other emotions that raged inside of her and everyone around her on a daily basis, she was scared.  And then she was gone.

Death can have comedic value, but it is not inherently funny on its own.  Just think of Grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine wrapped in a hospital sheet and stuffed in the back of the family’s VW Bus as a highway patrol officer pulls them over, asking Richard to open the trunk.  What’s funny is not death in and of itself.  The funny is in the situation.  Because the reality is… Death sucks.  Cancer sucks.  And you don’t just laugh your way through something like that because you’re simply a “courageous and positive-minded individual.”  I’m not an acutely bleak or pessimistic person, but there’s a fine line between cheerfulness and delusion. 

I understand that the best comedy derives from tragedy, but that tragedy should also yield a certain degree of sardonicism appropriate for the given circumstances.  People love to compliment the show’s fusion of comedy and tragedy; but to me, the comedic disposition with which Cathy deals with her tragic circumstances strikes me as a perpetual state of denial rather than an authentically and appropriately positive perspective.  Upon finding out that the treatment is not only failing to cure her cancer but actually further harming her body, this is not news to be brushed over haphazardly.  Yes, she resists with frustration, with overt denial even, saying she wants a second opinion on the matter; but Cathy and her husband barely even address the fact that Dr. Todd “cannot cure her,” and that she is likely “going to die.”

I’m not saying The Big C has to be a full-fledged melodrama.  But when you’re dealing with such serious subject material, focusing only on the funny (as Cathy does) seems to adequately handle only one half of the show’s underlying purpose.  If this sufficiently entertains and encourages you, that’s perfectly fine, and you can feel free to call me a cynical asshole for not buying into it.  At the end of the day, however, death is inevitable and denial is only the first stage in dealing with it.  If you cling onto denial for too long, however, it only makes that fateful conclusion hit harder and faster than you could ever imagine, and you’ll have to forgive me for finding that concept less than amusing.