DVD: Cancer Isn’t Funny But The Big C Is!

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Showtime’s relentlessly peculiar comedy The Big C is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Centered around the character of Cathy Jamison, it is the story of how a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer [stage four melanoma] only learns how to live once she learns she’s dying.

When Showtime announced it was doing a half-hour comedy series about a woman with terminal cancer, I’m sure that there were a lot of second-guessers. Of course, this is the cable network that turned a serial killer into a relatable series hero, so I took a wait and see attitude – and was rewarded with thirteen episodes of stunningly strange events built around a cast of characters who ranged from a jackass teenage boy to a scathingly funny eighty-year old female curmudgeon.

The story of Cathy Jamison [Laura Linney] is twofold. As I mentioned above, there’s the whole learning to live once you find out you’re dying arc, but there’s also a reflective arc based on her making impulsive decisions as she embraces what life she has left without regard to the consequences her actions will have on those around her.

The core cast of The Big C is both literal and surrogate family – Cathy’s man-child husband, Paul [Oliver Platt]; their spoiled, a$$hole of a teenage son, Adam [Gabriel Basso]; her eco-warrior/homeless by choice brother, Sean [John Benjamin Hickey]; her obnoxious, overweight student, Andrea [Gabourey Sidibe], and the eighty-year old, curmudgeonly widow, Marlene [Phyliss Somerville] who lives across the street. For her sympathetic oncologist, Dr. Todd [Reid Scott], she is his first – first terminal diagnosis in his own practice.

Like a surprising number of terminal cancer patients, Cathy takes two almost diametrically opposed paths at first: she decides not to tell anyone she has cancer, and she makes some huge life decisions [kicking her husband out of the house; cashing in her retirement money and buying impulsively; putting a swimming pool in her backyard; keeping Adam from going to soccer camp, and so forth]. Without knowing about the cancer, her family can only surmise she’s gone around the bend.

Over the course of the show’s first season, it seemed like the writers weren’t completely certain of how balance the show’s black humor and the drama. Fortunately, while that balance was a while in settling down, there show never made Cathy’s cancer funny. By not making the actual disease funny [which it’s not], they were able to take some time to figure out the comedy/drama balance without ever making the series seem exploitative.

Series creator/executive producer Darlene Hunt has taken what could have been a disaster and turned it into a frequently powerful character study. As Cathy becomes more and more aware of her life – and tries to experience it more fully, she also alienates those closest to her, making it harder to tell them why she’s behaving so differently.

At the same time, her seize the moment attitude leads to unexpected friendship with the crotchety Marlene [and her dog, Thomas] that brings about positive change for Marlene while giving Cathy a confidante besides her oncologist.

Her desire to live life more fully leads to her engaging her estranged brother in ways that he can appreciate [‘You’re getting your weird back, sis,’ he says at one point in the pilot] and facing a sad truth about her father.

By the first season finale, The Big C has found its balance, consolidated its direction and set up the direction for season two. It’s a ride that’s worth taking. It’s a shame that the DVD is a bit on the lean side when it comes to features.

Features: Complex Characters [featurette]; Interviews with the principal cast; deleted scenes; gag reel.

Grade: The Big C – B+

Grade: Features – C

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