Tumor humor

A whimsical, seriocomic 13-week series about cancer? Anyone who has suffered the devastating effects of that disease or knows somebody who has (and isn't that just about everybody?) would be hard-pressed to envision malignant tumors as the stuff of prime-time chuckles. What's the old expression? "Dying is easy; comedy is hard."

If anybody can pull off both ends of that double, however, I'll put my money on America's Sweetheart, consummate actress Laura Linney. What some critics seem to be missing about The Big C, Linney's first starring TV project, premiering at 10:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 16, on Showtime, is that it has very little to do about cancer or death, at least in its beginning episodes. It's a show about living, with all its changes and shocks and curveballs, and the liberating gallows humor that comes with settling all accounts, fulfilling every whim, and feeling completely free to tell everybody precisely what you think of them. She's "getting her weird back," as her character's brother declares, and why not? What are they going to do, kill her?

(If you have trouble visualizing this concept, don't get Showtime or just can't wait until Monday, fear not: In a canny marketing ploy, the pay-cable network has allowed copies of the debut episode to pop up for free across the Internet; Google "The Big C" and pick the provider you like. But these are edited versions. If you want to see the whole show uncut, the online teaser advises, well, you should subscribe to Showtime.)

Linney is Cathy Jamison — what a delightfully ordinary name — a rigid, highly conservative Minneapolis high school teacher who has just been handed a diagnosis of terminal cancer and is attempting to process the thunderbolt. Who can she confide to? Most of the men in her life are tragically self-absorbed. Her husband, Paul, played by Oliver Platt (not my first choice for a prime-time hubby, but there's no accounting for taste or love), is an unbelievably childish male who has prohibited Cathy from cooking with onions throughout their long marriage because he says they're "stinky poo-poo." (How I've longed for a reason to write those words!) As we meet him, Paul has been kicked out of the family home and is trying to fake enough maturity for Cathy to welcome him back. 

Brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) is a fanatical eccentric, homeless and unwashed by choice, far more committed to saving the earth than sharing with his sister. And her son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), is an insufferable teenage jackass whose mission in life is pulling sadistic pranks on Mom. So Cathy, much to her surprise, is opening her verbal floodgates to the new man in her life, her young oncologist Dr. Todd (Reid Scott), and revealing layers about herself as she grills him about his life.

The specter of death has emboldened her. She wants a swimming pool in her too-small backyard (built by the bemused contractor, Phill Lewis, a favorite of mine and now of our kids because of his role in the Disney Channel's The Suite Life on Deck). She storms unannounced into the home of her older neighbor (Phyllis Somerville) to chide her about her shoddy lawn, only to discover an unlikely kindred spirit. And she reads the riot act to her student, Andrea (Academy Award-winner Gabourey Sidibe, in a recurring role), for using mean-spirited humor to mask the pain of her weight problem.

The Big C trades a bit in neatly formed stereotypes, but Cathy's journey seems very raw and real, and an eye-popping array of guest stars — Liam Neeson, Cynthia Nixon and Idris Elba, to name a few — will aid her along the way. "I'm here all year!" Cathy cries ruefully, "performing at Stage IV!" Linney's singular skills are going to make it very interesting to watch Cathy for as much time as she has left. 

With Linney joining Edie Falco on Nurse Jackie, Toni Collette in United States of Tara and Mary-Louise Parker in the hit Weeds, Showtime has quietly become a cable showcase for some of the finest actresses working today. Hey, what if The Big C gets renewed? Reminds me of that old Henny Youngman joke: "The doctor told me I had six months to live. I told him I couldn't pay his bill. He gave me another six months."

Murder, they vote:
I am so bloody sick of the Detroit City Council showing themselves to the world to be ignorant fools, then making the rest of us feel embarrassed and apologizing for their incompetence. In their latest gaffe, our city fathers (and mothers) last month took time away from more crucial concerns to spend part of a council session discussing the merits of having the upcoming ABC series Detroit 1-8-7 filming in and around the city.

The Associated Press reported that some council members say they're concerned the drama will perpetuate a negative image of Detroit as dangerous and crime-ridden, whereas we all know nothing could be further from the truth. Well, NYPD Blue was set in New York for 12 seasons, Law and Order for 20, with bodies flying everywhere, and New York's image doesn't seem to be irreparably damaged as a result.

The time for our day-late, dollar-short City Council to express these concerns might have been when producers first began seeking and obtaining city permits to work in Detroit, not after they've settled into town and actually begun shooting, bringing a raft of good-paying, non-polluting jobs along with them. Tell you what: First councilperson to generate one new job for our city gets the right to complain as loudly as possible.

White Stripes, eh?:
Why hadn't the White Stripes ever toured Canada in their 10 years as a top-flight rock duo? "Well, we never used to be able to get across the border, ever," Detroiter Jack White explains at the outset of the musical documentary The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights, airing this month on Showtime. "Out of all the countries we've been to in the world, Canada's the only place I have to pay a fee to get into, and it's the only country we've been ever turned away from. It's hilarious, because we grew up across the street." Undaunted, the band sets out to perform in every province and territory in our neighbor to the north, and the filmed result is a must-see for Detroit musicheads. The doc next airs at 4:55 p.m. Saturday and 1 a.m. Sunday. Check your cable listing for additional broadcast times.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Jim McFarlin

Jim McFarlin, former media and entertainment critic for the Metro Times and The Detroit News, is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in People, USA Today, Black Enterprise, HOUR Detroit, and many other publications. His latest book, The Booster, about the decline and fall of U-M’s Fab Five, is...
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