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The "Big C" Debate Goes On

By admin Published: August 19, 2010

This week's mailbag deals in part with readers' reactions to my column about "The Big C." I have posted the text of the original column after the jump.

To expand on the point: War is not funny, but funny films and TV shows have been set during wars. Death is not funny, but it has been part of comedies. Cancer is not funny. But it is possible to make a funny production involving it, as "The Big C" does.

But saying that is not going to end the argument. Already this morning, I have had a call from a man who did not like my column and who considered my mailbag answer inadequate as a retraction. That's fine. I did not mean for it to be a retraction, only an explanation. We had a relatively civil discussion up to a point -- and that point was when he wanted to know if I had ever had cancer. When I noted that I had lost my first wife to it, he brushed that off. Not good enough, apparently. So I lost my temper, called him the same blunt term that a reader had called me, and hung up. Forcefully.

I should not have lost my temper. I am kicking myself for doing so. But hearing him brush off my loss, even 20 years after the fact . . . Anyway, I shouldn't have done it. Let's leave it at that.

After the jump, the original column.


Text: The makers of The Big C hope not only to make you watch a TV series about cancer, but to laugh while doing so.

Cancer has not been a stranger in prime-time television. Characters have had it going back to at least St. Elsewhere and thirtysomething and as recently as Breaking Bad. For that
matter, people have found humor in cancer, as with Julia Sweeney's splendid God Said Ha! monologue or Bad News, Mr. Swanson, a series pilot written by Northeast Ohio's Lisa DeBenedictis and Daryl Rowland.

Of course, it's been close to 10 years since Bad News, Mr. Swanson, was made, and it never went to series even though the pilot was very good. And The Big C was pitched
‘‘almost everywhere,'' series creator Darlene Hunt has said.

‘‘The first pitch out I was smiling and telling them it was a comedy but even I could tell what I was saying sounded so sad and depressing, nobody would want to watch,'' Hunt
says in press notes for The Big C. But she reworked her idea some, and Showtime picked it up; it premieres at 10:30 p.m. Monday.

Based on the first three episodes, it is very much worth watching ` tapping not only into our fears about cancer but the anger and confusion that come with it. At the same time, it's not some Bucket List dreamscape of living out your lifelong fantasies. It is messier and more complicated than that, especially when it comes time to tell your family that your body has betrayed you.

Laura Linney stars as Cathy Jamison, a teacher with Stage Four melanoma. And, in some ways, that is not even the most difficult thing in her life. She also has an irritating husband (Oliver Platt), an obnoxious son (Gabriel Basso), a student she wants to help (Gabourey Sidibe), a homeless brother (John Benjamin Hickey) and an unrepentantly grouchy neighbor (Phyllis Somerville).

Cathy, knowing her diagnosis, cannot bring herself to tell anyone close to her. But she also wants to take advantage of the time she has left, and that leads to behavior that can puzzle and infuriate the people around her. But that silence also adds to the show, especially in those moments when Cathy could easily win an argument with the declaration of her cancer, and chooses not to do so.

The show has some rough edges, but so does life. Linney is not only a splendid actress, she is one who can hold her own with Platt and Sidibe, two actors who are ready to dominate any scene left up for grabs. The first two episodes grabbed me, the third is spectacular. And yes, I laughed.

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