There’s nothing funny about cancer, especially the terminal kind. It’s an immovable comedic rule, except now someone’s come along dislodged it with their giant comedy crowbar. Fellow mortals, here’s a sitcom about dying. What’s even more shocking is that you will laugh at The Big C (on More4 at 11pm on February 3).
Teacher and married mother of one Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney), has been diagnosed with incurable melanoma. She’s yet to tell her obnoxious brood: the big kid husband Paul (Oliver Platt), the kooky environmentalist brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) and Adam (Gabriel Basso), the impertinent teenage son. Instead, she takes a look at her beige, suburban life and freaks out. She’s too nice, too dull, too accepting. And so Cathy embarks on a heady end-of-life crisis where normally a midlife one would suffice. When you remember why she’s in meltdown, it’s hard not to have a little internal cry. But this first episode has barred ponderous or brooding moments. It’s fast and hilarious so there’s little danger of ending up with a soggy face.
Cathy’s predicament may be unusually tragic but her crisis symptoms are comfortingly familiar: she flirts with her pretty-boy doctor, boots out her husband and decides to teach her son lessons in respecting his elders and toilet etiquette. She also does cartwheels and mentors an overweight student with the kind of tough love that might well see her hauled up in front of a disciplinary tribunal in a later episode.
But I do worry for The Big C’s future. Part of what allows the funny to flow is that Cathy hasn’t told anyone she’s going to die. Privately our heroine is contemplating her death and acting out. But to her unwitting kinfolk she’s just normal Cathy, if slightly more wired and deranged than usual. The family bickers and fights, and these incidents supply a lot of the laughs. But how will they keep this up when she tells the truth?
And at the moment Cathy doesn’t look sick. However leftfield you’re willing to swing for a laugh, surely there’s little or no comedy mileage in a greying, skeletal pre-corpse who needs morphine just to sit up.
Furthermore, soon after looking like a dying person she will actually die, so how long can the show survive? One maybe two seasons? Then again, if Cathy outlives her prognosis, there’s no reason it couldn’t stretch to a third and fourth. But if the pace drops and the laughs ebb away as the reality hits home, this show’s a dead duck anyway.