Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"The Big C"

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.

12 comments:

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: How About a Tragi-Comedy?

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. -- Stuart Schneiderman

For example, there being a cure for cancer, but due to people in certain industries being more interested in money than in cures, the cure has been suppressed since it was discovered in 1997 at Purdue University.

I've seen it cure an aggressive squamous carcinoma of the skin, i.e., the Not-So-Big 'C'. Just this last January. And that in 30 days.

Regards,

Chuck(le)
P.S. Check out Graviola and Pawpaw....

[God made the Earth and everything therein for Man.]

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Okay....

....here's a correlation with a thread down the hall from here on How to Give Advice that Someone Might Take.

How would YOU, doctor, go about telling someone with this type-and-stage of cancer about a cure that didn't involve significant surgery, intense radiation or harsh chemicals that cause you to lose all your hair or other severe side-effects?

And if you were thoroughly convinced of its efficacy, would you tell anyone about it? Or would you think that you were like Gray described people with good advice, a 'passive-aggressive a-hole'?

Regards,

Chuck
P.S. I know a minister working in hospice who has known about this for quite some time, but he just can't quite seem to bring himself to the point of saving people's lives by telling them. I suspect he's worried that he'd be branded as a heretic or something worse....

Anonymous said...

For example, there being a cure for cancer, but due to people in certain industries being more interested in money than in cures, the cure has been suppressed since it was discovered in 1997 at Purdue University.

We have now entered the "Kook Zone". The bane of rational discourse, science and reason.

We have entered the zone where New Age Religion, Conspiracy, anti-corporatism, Jesus, Populism, Placebo and Faith join to destroy the fruits of Reason, Hypothesis and Scientific Method.

Beyond which is clearly labeled:

"Heer thar bee Monstairs...."

--Gray

Anonymous said...

Or would you think that you were like Gray described people with good advice, a 'passive-aggressive a-hole'?

Well, I guess you can see why I despise the "helpful advice givers" in my life.

Q.E.D.

--Gray

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Gray
RE: Kook?

Take a look at the research performed at Purdue University in 1997 . Then get back to me on who is a 'kook'.

So, if it kills cancerous cells in vitro while leaving healthy cells alone, why wasn't the research carried out in lab animals and then in humans?

And if such research WAS accomplished and it failed, where are the reports of the failure?

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: As I Was Saying....

....how do you get it into someone like Gray's head that there are some good things out there?

I'll be Gray doesn't have the courage to spend the $7 on the cantharis experiment I suggested in that earlier thread. It would likely shatter their carefully contrived world.

Regards,

Chuck(le)
P.S. The ad hom on Gray's part is particularly telling of a certain mentality. Not having any cogent argument to offer, all they can do is 'call the other side names'.

THERE is a good topic for a thread.....

Stuart Schneiderman said...

As some of you may know, I am not a physician. Therefore I do not offer advice about medical matters. And I would never want to make a suggestion that anyone would read as advice against following a physician's recommendations.

I don't quite see why Chuck believes that pharm companies are shutting down cancer research because it might find a cure. You would think that a cure would be profitable.

I have known people who have, as a last resort, tried some radical, alternative treatments. Some have worked; most have not. When making a clinical assessment one needs to know whether those that have worked have only worked in one or two cases or whether they would be effective in all similar cases.

I have also known some people who are involved in molecular biology and who do research on these matters. I have heard of cases where a substance will kill cancer cells in a petri dish while not harming normal cells. As I understand it, that is a mere first step toward a research project that usually takes decades. It is an enormously complicated process, one with which I am not even remotely familiar.

Given my lack of knowledge I cannot really comment on whatever was going on at Purdue. I would find it difficult to imagine, however, that a very promising cure could not have raised some research funds from a pharm company, a university, or a foundation. If it did not, then there is probably much more to the story.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: 'Conspiracy Theory' — Background

I don't quite see why Chuck believes that pharm companies are shutting down cancer research because it might find a cure. You would think that a cure would be profitable. -- Stuart Schniederman

First, allow me to give you, and likely others, some of my background.

I'm a retired lieutenant colonel of infantry. I enlisted in 1970. I put aside my sergeant's stripes and took on lieutenant's bars in 1975: a bachelor's degree in microbiology/chemistry [Note: It was a double major.]I'm a graduate of the Army's Command and General Staff and their Logistics Management colleges.

I'm well versed in ascertaining what someone is 'up to', when they don't want you to know what their up to in the first place. It's called, in Army jargon, 'Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield' (IPB). [Note: It's REALLY quite useful in so many other venues that I recommend it to everyone.]

And, conspiracies do exist. Especially anywhere where there is competition. Corporations and countries conspire against one-another ALL THE TIME. So, let's put away this idea that there is no such think as 'conspiracy'.

RE: 'Conspiracy Theory' & the Medical Industry

And believe me it IS an 'industry'. On a par with the military-industrial complex of infamy.

So, to reiterate....

I don't quite see why Chuck believes that pharm companies are shutting down cancer research because it might find a cure. You would think that a cure would be profitable. -- Stuart Schniederman

Knowing something about 'people' after 60-some years on this ball-o-dirt, from the military, corporate and private sectors, I've noticed that a LOT of them are more interested in money than in anything else. I've seen doctors prescribe medicines that almost kill their patients....inadvertantly. I've seen doctors actually TRY to KILL their patients....deliberately. I've seen doctors lie in public about the efficacy of a treatment. I've seen pharm companies 'tap-dance' around the side-effects—sometimes life-threatening—of their products.

I know that radiologists and oncologists, let alone the pharm companies make SCADS of money off of cancer.

So, I ask you, how many oncologists, radiologists, cancer researchers and pharm companies would GLADLY give up their lucrative business in order to open up a tea shop?

The reports I cite date back to the late 1990s. That's over ten years ago. And yet no one is either (1) shouting from the roof-tops that there is a cure OR (2) showing research that proves that there is no cure.

More to follow.....

Chuck Pelto said...

Continued from previous post....


RE: 'Conspiracy Theory' — A History

Remember the Viet Nam War?

I do.

Being a professional military officer, I'm a keen student of history. Especially when it hits me full in the face. As in I was almost there....save for the grace of God.

Recall how it got ramped up as a result of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Incident?

Back in the mid-90s, McNamara published a book about it all. And in that book he basically admitted that the Incident was not what they—he and LBJ—reported to Congress.

So....here is a group of people at a local watering hole. Just out of the monthly General Meeting of the Denver chapter of Mensa. About eight of the largish party, are at a large round table. Myself, my wife-to-be, a Nam-era anarchist magazine publisher, his significant other, a retired Navy guy and some others.

Suddenly the Navy guy starts crying in his beer.

The rest of us at the table look perplexed. We ask him why he is upset.

He says that he was working CINCPAC Operations when the 'Gulf of Tonkin Incident' occurred. Later, when LBJ and McNamara pushed it before Congress to intensify the US involvement he and the rest of the officers working the department KNEW it was a lie, the way it was described.

And YET, despite all their knowledge of the lie, they kept their silence. It would be the end of their careers if they spoke out.

And what was the result?

Try 58,000 Americans and up to 4 MILLION southeast asians dead.

So, please don't try to argue that there are no such things as 'conspiracies'. I'm old enough to know better.

More to follow....

Regards,

Chuck(le)
P.S. Try the homeopathic-grade cantharis....

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Specializations

I appreciate your specialization and how it affects opinions on other fields.

However, with regards to Gray, I'm not so much interested in his 'disbelief' or your 'appreciation' of pawpaw as a possible cure for cancer. I'm more interested in the psychology of 'disbelief'. And I think it would be an excellent study, or just a thread.

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[All ages of belief have been great; all of unbelief have been mean. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson]

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: Back On-Topic

This sounds like an excellent series.

However, I'm reminded of the sort of placation performed in that future-history movie classic, Soylent Green. Where they are making Edward G. Robinson accept his euthanasia with pretty pictures and soothing music. Meanwhile Charlton Heston looks on at all of it in awe and wonder at what 'might have been', if mankind hadn't gone totally FUBAR.

Oh! Look! I'm dying of a horrific ailment that will eat my body and my mind. Isn't that 'nice'?

Crimanie....

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[Don't fear the reaper..... -- from the atheist's perspective]

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Further Thoughts....

I don't quite see why Chuck believes that pharm companies are shutting down cancer research because it might find a cure. -- Stuart Schneiderman

...on cancer treatment research.

The pharm companies have not 'shut down' research into graviola and pawpaw. And maybe this explains something to you that will help aleviate your disbelief. Rather, they are diligent in pursuing research into a cure BASED on the discover.

HOWEVER, because they cannot patent a naturally occurring substance, they cannot make SCADS of money off of the active agent found naturally in graviola or pawpaw. Lord knows they've been trying for the last 13 years. But they have failed miserably. In the meantime, over half a million Americans dies every year of some form of cancer.

Hence no 'shouting from the roof tops' on their part. There's no 'money' in it.

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[The Truth will out....]

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: Hmmmmm

What was it I commented in another thread about 'silence'?

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[The Truth will out....]