Friday, January 18, 2013

Promise Lost

It can be fully acknowledged that television (especially on cable) will tackle subject matter that even movies seldom touch. But that doesn't mean they always do it well, as Mark Clamen pointed out in Critics at Large when he encountered the first season of Showtime's The Big C.

The Big C Gets a C+

It is no longer necessary to make the point that television is currently a lot better than film. TV series are drawing not only A-list actors (Glenn Close and William Hurt on Damages, Sally Field in Brothers and Sisters, Holly Hunter on Saving Grace, to list just a few), but also A-list directors (Agnieszka Holland has directed episodes of The Wire and Treme, and most recently, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot of the much-anticipated Boardwalk Empire, which premiered last night). Television has come a long way, and TV viewers are richer for it.

To a large degree, the increasing richness of television can be traced to its overall honesty – television’s willingness to show us things which are uncomfortable or ugly, and its ability to illuminate the details which make the lives of our favourite characters so intriguing. But there are shows with all the right ambition, shows which, despite their potential and intriguing subject matter, fail to live up to their own promise. The Big C is one of these shows.

The Big C premiered on Showtime on August 16th, and recently aired its fourth episode on that network. (In Canada, it debuted on September 1st on Super Channel.) Like Showtime’s other dark comedy-dramas (Weeds and Nurse Jackie), The Big C runs a half-hour. Bill Condon, the Academy-award winning filmmaker of Kinsey and Dreamgirls, directed the pilot episode.

Laura Linney as Cathy Jamison
The show stars Laura Linney (You Can Count on MeThe Savages) as Cathy Jamison, an uptight 42-year-old mother and high school teacher who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. Faced with few viable treatment options and a prognosis which gives her 3-5 years to live at best, she opts to forgo all treatment and returns to her life intent on making radical changes to her personality and behaviour in the time she has left. The twist, however, is that she chooses to keep her diagnosis, and the fact of her suddenly abbreviated lifespan, a secret from her family and her friends.

Billed as “Showtime’s Cancer Comedy,” The Big C, though well-produced and well-cast with a group of very talented actors, is rarely funny and so far, four episodes in, doesn’t have much to say about cancer. There is certainly a lot of rich material there to be mined. With millions of people living with cancer across North America, there probably isn’t a single viewer who hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way, and a frank, intimate series on the subject could have been something special. Creator Darlene Hunt has described the show as being less about the details of life after a cancer diagnosis and more generally about “a mother confronted with her mortality.” This much has also been borne out in the content of the first four episodes. Perhaps Hunt felt that too much focus on the everyday particularities of cancer would make the show less accessible to a larger television audience? Whatever the rationale of the show’s creators, I cannot help but feel that less abstract existential angst, and more attention to detail, would have made for a richer, and ironically, more engaging drama. In the absence of those particularities, Cathy’s reactions to her illness often feels alien and difficult to comprehend, much less sympathize with. Lives are lived in the details after all.

Needless to say, however, Laura Linney is fantastic with the material she is given here. From her breakout, Oscar-nominated role in You Can Count on Me (2000), to her more recent nominated role in The Savages (2007), she invariably brings charisma and energy to every character she plays. Both of these movies fall into the category of films I’ve tacitly classified as “adult sibling” stories. It is a rare film that takes adult sibling relationships seriously, and Linney has starred in two! And true to form, the scenes inThe Big C with her brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) are among the show’s most fun and engaging. Though Sean’s ‘homeless-by-choice’ character is burdened with a sanctimonious, Global Warming agenda, Hickey pulls it off admirably, giving Sean a playful liveliness which belies the over-designed character written for him. The faults of this show are not in the acting.

Laura Linney and Gabourey Sidibe
Oliver Platt (Huff, The West Wing), plays Cathy’s recently estranged husband Paul. Platt is as entertaining as always, playing the same overgrown-little-boy-in-a-business-suit that served him so well in Huff, but so far there is little to his character that we haven’t already seen before. Another noteworthy presence is Gabourey Sidibe, the young actress recently nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress for her debut performance inPrecious (2009). As a precocious student that Cathy takes under her wing, Sidibe is often a fascinating foil for Cathy and her newly free-spirited personality.

Despite these gifted actors, the show often leaves me exasperated, both with its plots and characters. Most frustrating are the actions of the main character herself: while Cathy’s decisions are consistently self-centred and generally thoughtless towards others, the show continues to celebrate her as the (albeit quirky) moral centre of the show's universe. The show wants to tell us that Cathy’s diagnosis is a wake-up call leading to a renewed commitment to living her life honestly, but her first act is to build an enormous wall around herself and to continually lie to everyone who matters to her. Though, apparently, the main feature of her newly-awakened persona is to say whatever’s on her mind, no matter the consequences, the one thing most profoundly on her mind (her illness), she keeps persistently to herself. As she struggles to redefine her life and her relationships – without letting anyone know why her personality has suddenly changed – she inevitably pushes away the very people she should be pulling closer. While the secret-keeping might have worked well in a feature film, by the second episode of a TV series it is maddening and distracting. Cathy’s reasons for keeping her illness from her family aren’t made clear, but it hovers somewhere between “they couldn’t handle it” and “they don’t deserve to know.” Either way, the result is relationships which are unsatisfying to watch and rarely delve beneath the emotional surface. The first episode begins sometime after Cathy’s initial diagnosis and so viewers are robbed not only of her initial reaction to the news, but also of access to her pre-cancer personality. We are supposed to believe that she was a risk-averse stick-in-the-mud, but our sole access to this information is in the secondhand reactions of the members of her family to the changes. The only character she’s honest with is her young, attractive oncologist (Reid Scott, My Boys). Those scenes do give us precious insight to the real person suffering beneath the fa├žade Cathy has created, but they are few and far between. While perhaps her actions might make some sense to the viewers, her treatment of her family, from their veiled perspective, appears arbitrary and sometimes cruel. Ultimately only Linney’s natural charisma keep Cathy from becoming entirely unlikeable.

John Benjamin Hickey
Cancer remains perhaps the last great taboo for TV to tackle. Is it really surprising that television was willing to give us a serial killer as a lead character before a cancer patient? But after three seasons ofBreaking Bad, I had hoped that this new series would be as confident in its telling. Cathy’s refusal of treatment – while not in itself unrealistic considering the illness the show chose to give her – has allowed the show to sidestep many of the rich details of living with cancer in contemporary America: the financial burdens, the daily up and downs and rollercoaster of hope and despair, the inability of others to understand what the sufferer is experiencing, all the while trying and failing to be helpful. This, for better or for worse, is not the story Darlene Hunt is choosing to tell. The Big C wishes to paint a broader picture, and give us a story about mortality and about a life lived in the shadow of death. But unlike Breaking Bad, which unflinchingly put the viewers right inside Walter White’s suffering (in those first couple of seasons, no scene with Bryan Cranston in it could fail to remind us of the physical and psychological reality of the character’s diagnosis), here our access to Cathy’s largely asymptomatic illness is limited to her unconventional actions, and her silence.

This probably isn’t my final word on The Big C. I’ll continue watching – if only for the incomparable Indris Elba (The Wire), who is slated to appear in a four-episode arc later in the season. And as brilliant asBreaking Bad often is, the violence and intensity of many of its storylines means it is not a show for everyone. As for The Big C, we are only a third of the way through its first season, and it still has the potential to grow. Between its brave subject material and the array of talented people in front of and behind the camera, I remain hopeful it will find its bearings soon enough.

- originally published on September 20, 2010 in Critics at Large.

-- Mark Clamen is a lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television and popular culture.

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