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TV Review: The Big C

When I first heard about Showtime’s new show The Big C last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  All I knew was that it was a show about Cancer, it sounded like a Reality show that would hit way too close to home for me.  Cancer? Really? Do they have to go there?

Having lost so many people I love to Cancer, I couldn’t stand the thought of it being made light of at all.  I had images in my head of these people being exploited for money, possibly doing this Reality TV show to make money to leave their families and it horrified me. But I was too curious to leave it alone, so I downloaded the first episode blindly, ready to face whatever was waiting for me.

First, a feeling of relief washed over me as I realized it wasn’t Reality TV at all.  The fact that it was on Showtime should have been my first clue that rather than reality, it was an edgy, somewhat controversial comedy which looks at Cancer from all different angles.

Yes, you heard me, I said it!  A comedy about Cancer.  It can be done!  Showtime has proven that with this amazing program that I haven’t been able to stop watching since that first episode.  Here’s a preview:

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What a wonderful, wonderful show…honestly, I’m completely hooked.

It also has an amazing cast and I don’t think anyone could have done better when it came to choosing the people to play each of the roles. My hat’s off to the casting department for this one.


First there’s Laura Linney in the role of The Big C herself, Cathy Jamison.  The lead role in the story, Cathy is a teacher, wife and mother who is diagnosed with stage IV melanoma.  The story follows her through her mental process after her diagnosis, how it causes her to see life differently, react to her family differently and just generally grab life (and the odd handyman) by the balls!

There is also a certain humor that comes into play here. Not the kind of humor that I think Cancer patients would be offended by, and obviously that is something I can only assume having not had cancer myself… but rather, the sort of comedy that would have them shaking their heads and laughing.  I think what Linney brings to the character is something a lot of real Cancer patients could relate to and see the humor in it themselves.  I’m sure many of them will have gone through the same emotions she has, and I can only imagine many of them have felt like doing the very same thing she does during her journey of trying to come to grips with the hand life has dealt her.

She is a beautiful woman, an incredibly talented actress and she brings Cathy to life in a way that has us all cheering for her, laughing with and at her and crying for her all at the same time.  I am so attached to this character, it almost frightens me where the story is going to take her. That is what tells me that the writing and acting in this show are so great, because I am invested.


As much as I love Laura Linney and the entire premise of this show, I can’t deny that my very favorite part of the show is Oliver Platt and his character of Cathy’s husband, Paul Jamison.

It’s odd, because to me Oliver Platt is Paul Jamison, and Paul Jamison is Oliver Platt.  It’s like this role was created for him, and who knows, maybe it was.  I don’t think there is a role I haven’t loved him in, but the waves of sadness, joy and insanity that are needed to play Cathy’s husband couldn’t be done this well by anyone else.

He is a brilliant actor, as is obvious from all his work, but he makes Paul special!  Even when he’s doing things that make us groan and smack ourselves in the forehead, even when he’s being completely unreasonable… we still love him because that’s just the kind of character and actor that he is.  He makes it impossible to be angry with him and he is so quirky and loveable that you can’t help but forgive him for all his many, many flaws.  What endears me to him most is his undying love for Cathy.  No matter what crazy lengths her coping mechanisms cause her to go to, and even though there are times he feels like walking away forever, in the end he stands by her  through thick and thin.

These two particular actors in these two particular roles are what make this show.  Without them, it couldn’t possibly be the same.  It’s a special combination, and unlikely combination when you first look at it… but somehow it works. That odd looking jigsaw puzzle of characteristics these two actors have come together in a magical way that you’d never expect.

There is also a pretty phenomenal supporting cast.

imagePhyllis Somerville, whom I’d never heard of previously, plays Cathy’s sarcastic, crotchety neighbour, Marlene.

Living across the street in a run down, unloved house, Marlene is living a solitary and lonely life after the death of her husband (also to Cancer).  She initially wants nothing to do with Cathy but  over time she gives in and they form a friendship.

She is the first person Cathy tells about her illness, but only because Marlene figures it out for herself.  She has a theory that dogs can smell cancer and  after her dog won’t leave Cathy alone, she comes to the conclusion on her own.

Marlene doesn’t let Cathy get away with anything, she calls her on all her antics and always tells her like it is.  I think Cathy appreciates the fact that the Cancer doesn’t make Marlene treat her with kid gloves.  She also quickly realizes that Marlene has problems of her own, as she is starting to show signs of memory loss.  This leads to other circumstances I won’t mention, as I don’t want to spoil anything for readers who haven’t seen the show yet.


Another great addition to the cast is Gabourey Sidibe who plays one of Cathy’s high school students.  A fighty, smartass student that Cathy takes a special interest in by offering her cash rewards for losing weight.

I seem to recall Howard Stern making comments to the affect that Gabourey would never get any more work after her role in Precious, due to her size and there not being any roles out there for her.  Well, I think it’s safe to say that she is making him eat those words.
The role she plays in The Big C could not be more different than her character in Precious.  Andrea Jackson is bubbly, bright and doesn’t take crap from anyone, which is pretty much the opposite of her role as the sullen, beaten down Precious. She sounds more like a valley girl than a girl from the hood and she has big dreams and a big attitude.

Much like Marlene, she doesn’t let Cathy get away with anything either.  She doesn’t pity her for having Cancer and doesn’t allow Cathy to pity her either.  While there is a certain amount of insecurity that comes with being young and overweight, her carefree and independent nature is part of what draws Cathy to her.


It took me a while to warm up to John Benjamin Hickey’s character, Sean Tolkey, Cathy’s bi-polar brother. He’s a hardcore environmentalist who prefers to live on the streets, eat out of garbage cans and preach loudly about all that is wrong in the world.

In the beginning of the show, Cathy and Sean have a very distant relationship and it is only after her diagnosis that she realizes it and tries to create a stronger bond between them.  He doesn’t make this easy for her, just by being who he is, but she doesn’t give up easily.

There are a lot of highs and lows with Sean throughout this story so far, not just in his relationship with Cathy, but in other relationships and their trying to deal with his mental illness.

We sometimes get glimpses of what Sean could be, and that makes us feel sort of sad.  With him not being a fan of his medication he unfortunately never stays on them very long.  While we fall in love with him when he is ‘stable’ Sean, some of that gets ripped away when he goes off his medication and starts behaving in ways that cause his family to worry about him.  He can sometimes come across as being very selfish, but you can’t blame him for that really…  Like with his fellow cast mates, John Benjamin Hickey does a great job with his character.  Even when I look at this photo I don’t see the actor, I just see Sean in a suit.


Hugh Dancy came into the story somewhat later than the rest, after Cathy and Paul hit him with their car on the way to the hospital.  He didn’t leave them with the best first impression, coming off somewhat cocky and rude, but when Cathy realizes that he has the same condition and they are in the same clinical trial, they become fast friends.

He teaches Cathy a lot about herself, that she is more than just her illness and how important it is for he to live her life to the fullest.  There is an attraction there on her side, even though she would never do anything about it, but it’s pointless as he turns out to be gay.

He is a lovely, although sometimes frustrating, character. He had been dealing with Cancer a lot longer than Cathy so while she was still in the stage where she wanted to try everything possible and fight for all she is worth, he had reached a stage of acceptance that she wasn’t ready for yet.  So while they had a lot in common in regards to their actual illness, they were in quite different places when it came to dealing with it.  Their relationship was a touching example of how two people can become great friends in spite of all their glaring differences.

There are other smaller roles that people played, for example Idris Elba had a short stint as a fling of Cathy’s (remember what I said about grabbing life by the balls??) and Ried Scott as Cathy’s first very cute but somewhat inappropriate oncologist. Also Alan Alda (our old friend from M*A*S*H) joins the cast as the new doctor in charge of Cathy’s clinical trial.

As much as I love this show, there are a few things I hate about it as well, mostly characters that irritate me.


Cynthia Nixon came very close to ruining this show for me a number of times.  As a huge fan of Sex and the City, her role of Miranda Hobbs was one that grated my nerves something fierce.   It’s possible that I just hate this actress and she is doomed to ruin any role she plays for me, but perhaps that is why she was cast to play Rebecca in the first place.   I think the character was meant to be hated by the masses to some degree, so in that sense, she was cast perfectly.

On the other hand, she could have played the most wonderful and lovely friend possible and I may still have despised her simply for the actress who played her.  I will really never know until I see her in a role where she doesn’t play a whiney, shrill, self-involved pain in the arse.

Thankfully, her time on the show (at least for now) has come to an end.  I’m hoping there is a reason for her exit and that the execs realized that she was just too cringe worthy to keep around and we will not see Rebecca anymore in the future.  I would happily never see Rebecca, or Cynthia Nixon, ever again…


A slightly less irritating example is Gabriel Basso as Cathy’s son, Adam.  I can’t say I hate this character or the actor himself, but I just find myself sighing a lot and wishing he was different.

Maybe they have the child dealing with Cancer thing down pretty well, I don’t know.  I just find that while there is a fair bit of story given to Adam, that he’s lacking somehow.  Yes, he has his moments where he acts out or shows that he’s screwed up by the fact that his mother has cancer, but there’s no real depth there. Even that took a long time to happen, for ages he just did nothing.  He was just a space filler, or at least that’s what it felt like.

Other than the usual teenage boy stuff, like farting all the damn time, and the things he does for attention… he just feels hollow.
There were a few moments where I saw glimpses of maturity and depth, for example when he was dealing with Marlene or at Poppy’s reunion, but it wasn’t enough somehow. I need more from this character that I’m not getting and it’s not something I can put my finger on.  Maybe it’s the actor who doesn’t bring him to life and make him real in a way I need or maybe it’s the writing, I’m honestly not sure.  I don’t dislike him to the point of wanting him killed off… I just want MORE, somehow, just MORE.


Speaking of killing off!!  Can we please get some death for Parker Posey and her character Poppy?

Poppy is a girl, no… a WOMAN, a grown woman, like 38 years old grown… that Adam meets in a chat room for children of parents with Cancer.  She doesn’t tell Adam her real age, leaving him to find out when he first meets her face to face.  She clearly has issues, which is visible by the way she dresses, the fact that at almost 40 years old she still speaks like a 13 year old boy and just her general demeanor.  Not to mention the fact that she is hanging around with a teenage boy!

I don’t see the purpose of this character at all. Is she just there as another example of Adam’s poor decision making?  Is the fact that he sympathizes with her after all the lies she’s told supposed to make us see the depth we crave in him? I am at a loss.

Like with Cynthia Nixon, I am not a Parker Posey fan, so the fact that she is playing a character I can’t stand is not surprising.  Again, perhaps she was put in that role for that very reason, maybe the casting execs find Parker Posey annoying too and thought she’d be perfect for this role. In that case, well done!  Now please, write her off, I’m begging you.

Even the fact that a few of the characters make me want to stab knitting needles into my ears does not change the fact that I am completely in love with this show.  I love the way they take something so serious and bring light to it without disrespecting it.

I must warn you though, this is definitely not something you want to watch with your children, as I said… edgy. By edgy I mean sexual and vulgar at times, which also means it’s full of awesome.

I love the way they give us a glimpse into what it’s like to have Cancer and deal with it.  For example, the times where she does get upset because  people don’t get it, always makes me think back to the time I was sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table when an envelope shot under the door.  Her neighbour had slipped a get well card under the door with some money in it.  It was the first and only time I had seen my grandmother ever break down or show emotion about her situation.  She slammed her fist on the table, cried out that MONEY CANNOT BUY MY HEALTH BACK and sobbed.  It was heartbreaking for me to watch because she was such a strong woman and in my young mind, I was certain that Cancer was no match for her.

I was wrong.  I had no idea what she was up against and until that day never knew how frightened and sad she was behind the brave face she kept putting on for the rest of us.

I see that in Cathy as well, how she tries to go about her daily life, tries to be strong for herself and her family but with the nagging fear always in the back of her mind.

Ok, so The Big C is still fiction and not ever Cancer patient is going to have a crazy homeless brother or a funny, bitchy neighbour with Alzheimer’s… this IS TV after all.  But…It’s damn good TV and as long as you can take it for what it is, enjoy Cathy, her situation and the people surrounding her, I think you could love this show just as much as I do.

Have you been watching The Big C too?  If so, what do you think of it?

If not, what the heck are you waiting for?

About Tammy

A Canadian living in France with her Dutch hubby after 17 years in the Netherlands. A total TV and movie junkie who is never not knitting. She also enjoys other crafts, nail art, cuddling her dogs and general geekery. Otherwise just working on getting by and making a life for herself in her 'new' country.

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  1. wow! what a review! make sure they’ll send you some ‘thank you presents’ for promoting their show :D

  2. Fantastic show, so glad to see Platt in a great role, especially after they canned Huff.

    • Oh wasn’t he great in Huff? I think I liked him even better in that than I do in The Big C, simply because he was soooooo bad! Now I want to go back and re-watch that show!

  3. I haven’t seen this, or even heard of it. But I’m totally going to get it. Sounds fantastic. I’ve always had a bit of a crush on Oliver Platt, don’t tell anybody though!
    MissNeriss´s last post ..How many of these have you read?

  4. I gave this show a past for much the same reason you did. Thanks to your excellent review I’ll put it on my to watch list.

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