All four seasons of Laura Linney’s cancer comedy The Big C drops on Lightbox today. Sam Brooks writes about the series’ surprisingly uplifting journey through a woman’s nightmare.
There’s a moment late in the first season of The Big C that hits you right in the gut. After finding out his mother Cathy (Laura Linney) has terminal cancer, her son Adam steals cash from her purse while she’s right in the middle of her first treatment. What he ends up finding is a key to a storage unit, which he promptly hunts down.
Inside, he finds piles upon piles of wrapped gifts, including a sports car. As he investigates the unit, he opens cards and finds that they’re all birthday gifts: one gift for every year of the rest of his life. His mother has bought him gifts for all the birthdays she’s going to miss. A Sia song plays in the background, as it does for all the best television crying moments.
You can stop reading now and collect a Kleenex. Go on, I’ll wait.
The Big C was among the plethora of female-driven half-hour dramedies that came at the turn of the decade – a uniformly excellent and underrated genre. Think Nurse Jackie, Enlightened, and The United States of Tara. All of these involved a much-beloved actress (Edie Falco, Laura Dern, Toni Colette) taking on the role of a flawed, deeply troubled protagonist and often turning it into the performance of their career.
Laura Linney got her own shot at a half-hour dramedy with cancer comedy The Big C, and it’s one that’s well worth looking back on. She’s been an underrated titan of cinema since her turn in You Can Count On Me, an enormously empathetic performance of a woman quietly, exasperatedly taking care of all the people around her. Her other notable performances – a long-suffering wife in Kinsey, a depressive playwright in The Savages, and the falling-into-love single woman in Love, Actually – make great use of the effortless warmth she brings to the screen. From the first moment you see her, you feel calm; it’s like you can feel her breathing, see the breath reaching all the way up to her eyes.
That warmth is what makes her performance in The Big C such a triumph. It feels like the end-point of any one of her other characters. The wife who has suffered too long, the depressive playwright who is more depressed than a playwright, and the single woman who’s fallen too hard, too fast. Linney’s Cathy is embittered, she has no patience, and she just got diagnosed with stage-four cancer. There is, as we all know, no stage five.
We don’t get to see Cathy’s diagnosis, or how she reacts to the news. No, the first scene of the series is her talking to a landscaper, wanting to get her dream pool put in. The landscaper protests – it’s winter, there’s not enough room and there’s no way he can do it that quickly. She dismisses his objections, offering to pay him extra, then to pay him double. It sets up the series better than any tearfully-received diagnosis could; it sets up Cathy as someone who knows her fate, and who’s going to make sure she goes out the way she wants. As she later says to her estranged-ish husband: “I’m gonna hang on as long as I can. And I’m gonna go out ugly.”
The most remarkable thing about the series is how it exists, in a twisted sort of way, as a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy for those living with a terminal or chronic illness. You could hardly describe Cathy as having a dream life, but she’s definitely having the best possible existence one can have post-diagnosis. She gets to hide the news from everybody she loves and process it in her own way. She gets to tap out of basic social decorum and more, because, well, she’s dying. Who gives a shit?
It’s not realistic, but there’s something thrilling about seeing someone go through what, for any real life person would be the worst months of their life, in the best way possible. Cathy gets to make life-changing decisions on an almost daily basis – kicking her husband out of home, cancelling her son’s summer trip so she can spend time with him, paying a girl $100 for every pound she loses. Cathy gets to make friends with her unreasonably attractive doctor and make pretend with him on various trips.
And yes, Cathy gets to buy her son a lifetime’s worth of gifts to make up for the fact that she won’t be there.
The Big C commits to the wish-fulfilment fantasy of its premise (what would you do if you knew exactly how much time you had left?) and so does Linney. There’s a perverse joy in watching Linney spit insults and curses like she’s a villain, but she balances it out by also fully committing into Cathy’s physical decline. When she gets treatment, and really gets sick, you feel it.
It helps that she’s supported by a typically strong supporting cast, including Gabourey Sidibe (Precious, Empire) and John Benjamin Hickey (lots of small roles in good things). Even better, because this was before film stars started appearing on television properly, there are a lot of great guest stars, including Cynthia Nixon, Idris Elba, Brian Cox, Alan Alda, Parker Posey, Susan Sarandon, Mamie Gummer (Streep the Junior), and in a most delightful performance, Kathy Najjimy. Better yet, The Big C gives as much humanity and time to those surrounding Cathy as it does to her, one of the rare pieces of media that gives latitude to the ring of life around a person with cancer.
The Big C has an inevitable, and obvious end. Cathy is going to die, and it’s going to be from cancer. But the journey it takes to get there is surprisingly warm, tender, funny and even uplifting road.
You can watch all four seasons of The Big C on Lightbox right now.