Thursday, June 23, 2011

THE BIG C: Who Says Cancer Can't Be The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You?

If you were told you had 30 days to live, and it was certain you would, in fact, die after those 30 days were up, what would be your first thought?  Would you wonder about what you hadn't done, who you hadn't seen, or what you want to do with the rest of the time you have?  Would you change who you are, wish you had become something you hadn't, or wish you hadn't become something you had?  Would you wonder what happens to you when you die, and whether the time you had here was worth it?  Would you tell anyone, even if you felt those you need to tell are not equipped to deal with what you have to say?

Every one of us is going to die.  Some of us will die young, some will die very old, but there's no avoiding it, we are all going to die.  In my opinion, everyone's goal in life should be to be ready to go when that time comes.  If it comes tomorrow, make sure you don't have any regrets of things you wish you had done, that you hadn't.  If it comes 80 years from now, I hope you don't have to work until you die.  Since we can all die in a heart beat, it is probably best for us to try not to think about it.  However, sometimes, you don't have a choice.  You may be diagnosed with an incurable disease that has a rough time frame of mortality, you could be getting up there in years, or you could have a dangerous lifestyle or occupation.  I don't think it's false to say that what you did with the time you were given will often be what you're remembered for, rightly or wrongly.  Remember, we only live once (as far as we know).

With The Big C (Showtime, Monday nights 10:30pm EDT), we are given the opportunity to go on a voyage of self discovery with Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney).  Cathy is clearly not happy with who she is (or who she's become), in life, but, as the story begins, she has been diagnosed with Stage IV Melanoma.  This form of cancer has a relatively low survival rate, with proper treatment.  However, she doesn't want the treatment, she just wants it to run its course (she says that she doesn't want to lose her hair).  She is not given how long she has to live, but it's probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 months (perfect for three seasons of television).  Once Cathy is diagnosed, her basic strategy is to avoid telling anyone, because she thinks everyone she knows is incapable of handling this news.  I'll now break down each of the "important" characters, give a little bit of story, and wrap up with my initial thoughts about the show, after having seen the first three episodes.  I'll be watching the rest over the next week or so.

The Characters (all from IMDB):

Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney)
Paul Jamison (Oliver Platt)
Adam Jamison (Gabriel Basso)
Sean Tolkey (John Benjamin Hickey)
Marlene (Phyllis Somerville)
Dr. Todd Mauer (Reid Scott)
Andrea Jackson (Gabourey Sidibe)

Cathy Jamison is a teacher.  My guess is that she teaches American History, due to the classroom scene where she uses The Patriot (Mel Gibson) as a "teaching" tool.  Even though we are not told too much about her, it's very obvious that, before her diagnosis, she was pretty uptight, and possibly suffered from some form of OCD (she mentions that a habit can be broken in 28 days).  Maybe, when she was a child, she once was fun, but up until her diagnosis, she had ceased to be fun, at least since starting a family.  After learning how close she now is to death, she wants to be fun, again, no matter what it takes.  Since she refuses to tell her family about her diagnosis, everything she's doing is thought to be extremely strange.  Much of it is met with derision, and on the outside looking in, it appears she might be having a mid-life crisis, or is losing her s**t.  The audience knows what brought this on, but no one in the show has the faintest clue why she is acting this way, all of a sudden.

Paul Jamison is Cathy's husband.  Cathy has thrown him out of the house (happened before the series began), and he is currently living with his sister, sleeping on her couch.  Paul still acts like a child.  He is very juvenile with many of his antics.  He doesn't want to grow up.  As was intimated, in the third episode, he likes to do "thoughtful" things, without thinking of the aftermath.  An example of this is bringing a bunch of sand into the living room of their house, to set up a beach scene that would be reminiscent of the day he proposed to Cathy.  It's a great idea, but someone has to clean it up, and this is something that never occurs to Paul.  He's the guy who makes messes that someone else has to clean up, no matter how fun it was to create the messes.

Adam Jamison is Cathy and Paul's son.  Adam is not well adjusted.  He constantly talks back to his mother, and does a lot of very mean spirited practical jokes, in the Pilot.  Most of his temperament likely comes from his father.  He has all the makings of being someone who will not be able to adjust into the life of a grown up.  Upon stopping up a toilet, he doesn't plunge it, he just leaves it there.  Cathy discovers this, and tells him to plunge it.  His retort is to tell her to do it.  He is given quite an attitude adjustment, at the end of the Pilot, but it still doesn't change how much he is revolted by nearly all of his mother's actions.

Sean Tolkey is Cathy's brother.  He is completely irresponsible, while trying to act like everything he does is to help the environment.  We gather that he is homeless.  He spends his days harassing people about their wasteful practices.  He's basically an a-hole, and clearly has not grown up, at all, since his childhood.  Cathy used to be embarrassed by him, but after her diagnosis, she wants to get involved in his life, again.  He was the first person she was going to tell, but his personality defects did not allow her to get it out.  It just didn't seem right for her to do so.

Marlene is the Jamisons' across the street neighbor.  In the five years the Jamisons have lived in their house, they have never learned her name.  She is a grumpy, private person.  If it hadn't been for Cathy's life changing events, it's unlikely Cathy would have ever learned her name.  Marlene is clearly going to be Cathy's eventual confidant.  She may even be what Cathy would have become, had it not been for her cancer.

Dr. Todd Mauer is Cathy's Doctor.  She is his first cancer patient, or at least the first one he has had to tell they are going to die.  Cathy, normally not a very talkative person, cannot stop speaking when she is around him.  He is prone to saying inappropriate things, either in front of Cathy, or through the thin walls of the doctor's office.  It's clear that he will eventually be her main coping mechanism.

Andrea Jackson is one of the students in Cathy's Summer School class.  She is overweight, and has a mean spirit behind her.  Cathy tells her that she "cannot be fat, and mean".  While Andrea is smoking, at a doorway in the school, Cathy performs cartwheels past her, each thinking they have caught the other in an embarrassing act.  She then has a conversation with Andrea that ends with Cathy offering to pay her $100 for every pound she loses, and that if she catches her with another cigarette, the deal is off.  Andrea is clearly going to become a very important part of Cathy's life, and Cathy is going to become an important part of Andrea's life.

As explained above, the show is a journey of self discovery, when given news you didn't expect, and are likely not ready to accept.  The Big C is ultimately a character study.  It's not only of how she views herself, but how she views others, and how others view her.  Her life is going to change, there's no doubt about that.  She is going to change, there's no doubt about that.  In one of the posters on the wall at the support group she attended, was the quote "Passport To Life".  That's what this show is about, but it doesn't mean it in the way the poster intended it.  Her passport to life is going to come from this forcing her to live on her own terms, as opposed to what she believes society expects out of everyone.  She's going to die, but she's going to try to live as much as possible in the time she has left.  There isn't really much back story to tell, we just have to go on Cathy's journey, with her, no matter how painful it may be for her, and us.  As such, you basically have to watch the show from the beginning.  All of the episodes are available on the Standard Definition version of Showtime On Demand.  Season 2 begins next Monday, June 27.

I watched the show, because my friend Daina E. reminded me about it, after we talked a little about Nurse Jackie.  I thought the show might be good, based on some promos I saw during Nurse Jackie, last year, but never got around to checking it out.  I had the opportunity yesterday, and it left an extremely strong impression on me.  The hardest thing about Pilots is that you have to tell everyone who the characters are, which often leads to very boring first episodes.  In the case of this show, they didn't tell us anything, about anyone, they just showed us how they are as people, and we could clearly understand everything we needed to know about the characters.  What I found most amazing about the show was how quickly I became involved with the characters.  This is not something that normally happens, for me.  I generally have be tugged into stories, over a period of time, but, for some reason, I ended up empathizing with Cathy, by the end of the first episode.  What I mean by that is that I felt some kind of emotional attachment to her, already.  That is what good TV is all about.

This show could not have hit a bigger home run with the casting.  It has the great Laura Linney, the great Oliver Platt, and the great John Benjamin Hickey.  This show must be something special, to get all of these relatively established MOVIE actors to be in the show, which would likely take them away from other work for at least a few years.  This might be better than any movie they will be in for a long time.  It's a worthy project of their talents, and their acting ability absolutely makes this show.  Linney is always great, in everything she's in, and this is no exception.  It's nice seeing Oliver Platt play someone so goofy, with just absolutely amazing pieces of business he throws into every scene he's in.  I have never seen John Benjamin Hickey play anything but the straight man, in anything I've seen him in, but it's now completely clear, to me, that he has incredible comedic timing.  He also plays, overall, a completely disgusting character.  If you tune into this show for nothing other than these actors being in it, you won't be disappointed.

Overall, the pace of the show is good, though it does tend to drag a little, at points, in nearly every episode.  This show absolutely would not work as an hour long show, so it's a good thing it's only 30 minutes.  The writing is excellent, the stories are good, and the acting is top notch.  The weakest links in the show are the Doctor and Adam, but, overall, they're fine, too.  If you like shows about people, with excellent characters (acted sensationally), and can deal with the inevitable of where this show is going (Cathy's death), then you absolutely must start watching this show.  This show should have several EMMY nominations this year, and they will be well deserved.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Thanks Chris for takng a look at my little thirty minutes of Monday night chick time! I am pleased to see that you were easily attached to the characters as I am! I missed a couple of episodes in November so I have been playing catch-up and have been surprised of the turn of events that have happened! Keep watching and hope you enjoy!!!

  2. Thanks, Daina! I'm looking forward to the developments. The show is really good, so far, though I have to admit I liked Episodes 1 and 2 better than 3. I will probably watch a lot of them, this weekend!


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