If it’s possible to create a successful sitcom about “nothing,” as in Seinfeld, why not make one about cancer. Not just any old cancer, but stage 4 melanoma. Thus, The Big C.
Given that Laura Linney is “the fairest of them all” it makes good sense that her cancer would be melanoma. As happens in great comedies, The Big C is unrelentingly intelligent.
But is the show really a comedy? If you understand that a good comedy does not need to involve a barrel of laughs, it might well be one. A good comedy might contain jokes but it does not want you to come away thinking that life is a joke.
Classical comedy is really about reconciliation. Seeming conflicts are resolved and the parties reconcile. That was the old-fashioned meaning of “happy ending.”
To take an example, Shakespeare’s comedies are love stories; they begin with bickering or disinterested lovers and always end at the altar. For the record, Shakespeare‘s tragedies almost always begin with a marriage.
To me the great challenge of The Big C was to take an unfunny topic and dramatize something like a reconciliation.
For having succeeded the show deserves great, unstinting, and unqualified praise.
The comedy lies in one woman’s struggle to reconcile herself with terminal cancer. She does it without descending into maudlin sentimentality, chronic complaining, or rage against the universe.
Of course, you cannot make a tragedy about melanoma, at least not in the classical sense of the term.
If tragedy, as Aristotle defined it, is the story of a hero who precipitates his fall from the heights of power through a tragic flaw, then the story of a high school teacher from Minnesota getting cancer does not qualify.
No one is going to mistake Cathy Jamison for Phaedra or Medea.
Most television shows would have taken Cathy’s story and made it into a melodramatic and moralistic movie of the week. You can see it now: woman discovers she has cancer; her insurance is canceled; treatment is denied; crusading young doctor makes the case a political cause celebre; Congress passes Obamacare; patient receives state-of-the-art treatment; she dies anyway.
I am more than happy to say that The Big C does not address any of those issues. It does not moralize or politicize the issue.
Yet, when I saw the first couple of episodes, I was not convinced. The MacGuffin, for those who remember Hitchcock, was that Cathy Jamison had received a diagnosis of stage 4 melanoma and had decided that she did not want treatment and did not want to tell anyone about it.
The show does not moralize about whether or not she should confess it all to the world. It respects her decision, regardless of her reasons and regardless of the consequences.
Instantly, we know that we are not going to watch another drama about heroic young doctors performing medical miracles while indulging in more romantic drama than any normal person can sustain.
Whatever your or my expectations about medical miracles, Cathy Jamison is not interested. She refuses to fit her life and her illness into one of our favorite narratives. For that, I fear, some viewers tuned her out.
A high school teacher, mother, and estranged wife-- a bit like Everywoman--Cathy reacts by trying to discern the meaning of life.
She seems to be drawing her first precept from an insight she learned in a college philosophy course. The kind of insight that feels utterly profound to jejune minds… namely, that the meaning of life is that we are all going to die. Worse yet, we all might die tomorrow. Thus, we should live every day as though it were our last. As they used to say: carpe diem.
In Cathy’s words: “We’re all dying, all of us… If you think about it that way, hey, I’m living the dream,”
Of course, if it isn’t your last day, you are going to start feeling like a bit of a fool. The precept seems to tell us to ignore the lessons of the past and never to plan for the future.
It sounds like the kind of thought that would appeal to an adolescent who is away from home for the first time and who is feeling liberated from custom, convention, common sense, and even thrift.
Seize the day sounds a lot better. It certainly sounds better than: Party like there’s no tomorrow.
Is Cathy in denial? Not necessarily. If you change your behavior to take account of a new reality, then, in a strange way, you are adapting to reality.
Maybe, Cathy does not want to foul the time she still has left with those near and dear to her.
She might even be sufficiently benevolent to want to spare them the horrors of her disease.
And yet, when Cathy decides not to tell anyone, the show is also suggesting that when it comes to dying, we are in it alone. Despite what the culture would have us believe, we do not have an overarching moral obligation to share it with the world.
How would you like to have your daily interactions framed by the question: How does it feel to have stage 4 melanoma?
Instead of being Cathy Jamison she would be melanoma patient.
It makes sense that someone who has just received such a diagnosis does not want the pity, the grief, the compassion, the sensitivity, the shows of concern and love. And does not even want to star in the latest medical drama.
I am sure that some people tuned out the show after the first couple of episodes. They probably could not buy the MacGuffin, but they might also have found some of the characters-- Cathy’s brother, Sean, for example-- to be positively repugnant.
I know that I did.
But, let’s give the writers the benefit of the doubt and say that there might be a reason for connecting Cathy with a thoroughly repugnant dumpster-diving brother.
After all, isn’t melanoma a repugnant and unwelcome presence in Cathy’s life?
Sean's life makes no more sense than does the fact that young, vibrant Cathy Jamison is dying. Sean lives in filth and squalor, he scrupulously avoids hygiene, because he is aiming for advanced eco-purity. Cathy lives a good and normal and hygienic life; but she is dying.
Drama cannot show you the inner workings of anyone’s mind, so it dramatizes those workings in a charcter’s relationships.
As I was saying, this is a very intelligent show.
So, I did not find the MacGuffin especially persuasive, and I did not like the Sean character at all.
That meant that the show’s task was to resolve those problems and produce an intelligible reconciliation. Happily enough, it succeeded.
As I saw the plot developing I became more and more engaged with the episodes. In the end I found that its resolution was not only persuasive, but also brilliant.
Even if you disagree, I would say that the show had some redemptive qualities.
First, Laura Linney’s acting is so good that it is worth the price of admission. You do not get to see a great performance every day, and Linney provides a truly great performance. If there is justice in the world she will receive some serious rewards for her work on this show.
Second, the writing and the plotting are remarkably good. Comic writing is very difficult. The comic writer cannot make characters into emoting machines who, as they say, chew the scenery. The comic writer cannot manipulate audience emotions.
Comedy is based on intelligence, not on heavy emotions. When someone gets it right she deserves recognition.
I am not going to tell you how the first season ends, because I do not want to deprive you of the intellectual pleasure of seeing how the writers worked it out and showed Cathy’s reconciliation with her disease.