June 18, 2012


The problem with making a show about someone dying of cancer is that no one really wants to watch a show about someone dying of cancer.  Viewers will roll along with the dark and disturbing, but by and large they draw the line at bleak and depressing.  So Walter White, on Breaking Bad, hasn’t had so much as a symptom of his illness in seasons.  And no sooner did the new Dallas reveal that Bobby Ewing had a form of stomach cancer, than it turned out he miraculously had the kind that could go into instant remission without any chemo, radiation or invasive surgery (definitely on the cancer Top 10 list).  Thus, after the 1st season of Showtime’s THE BIG C revolved around Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) keeping her cancer a secret from her family, and Season 2 gave her an experimental drug protocol, the newly concluded Season 3 provided her with a remission that lasted all season and left the series having very little to do with Cathy’s cancer.

The problem with making your show about cancer into one that’s not about cancer is that it had better be about something else interesting.  That obviously hasn’t been a problem for the spellbinding Breaking Bad, but without Cathy’s disease, The Big C is just another cable dramedy about a dysfunctional family, and despite fine acting from Linney, Oliver Platt as her husband Paul and John Benjamin Hickey as her brother Sean, the season has largely been tiresome and silly.  Cathy spent a chunk of the season hanging out at a bar where she pretended to be a widow, her son Adam (Gabriel Basso) became sort-of religious, Cathy was swindled by a couple who were only conning her into thinking they’d let her adopt their (nonexistent) baby, Sean ran a gay phone-sex line, and Susan Sarandon showed up as a motivational speaker who was hit by a bus and whose audience Paul inherited.

The Season 3 finale, written by series creator Darlene Hunt and directed by Michael Engler, didn’t so much create cliffhangers as end in midair.  We’d been given a broad hint at the end of last week’s episode that Cathy was out of remission, and that turned out to be true.  Most of the episode, though, was spent on a fishing boat where Cathy, abandoned off the coast of Puerto Rico (where the family was on a quasi-vacation while Paul was delivering motivational speeches) during a scuba-dive by dive-buddy Sean–because he was chasing a cute fellow diver–surfaced and was taken in.  The boat’s skipper, ham-handedly named Angel (not the only clumsy religious symbolism in the episode), spoke no English, but calmed Cathy down with his simple life and lack of neuroses, which led to the show’s climax, where she jumped off the pier after being brought back to San Juan, and rather than return to her real life, swam back to Angel’s refuge of a boat.  It was all too precious for words.

Meanwhile, Paul was apparently jumping into bed with an American tourist, but that’s only “apparently” because the episode lost interest in his storyline about halfway through.  Similarly, Sean had been going in pursuit of Cathy the last time we saw him, and Adam and his friend/Cathy’s student/Paul’s assistant Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) were in a religious parade where they had just helped the “Virgin Mary” with her belongings after Andrea had a heart-to-heart conversation with “Jesus” (see?).

The episode could as well have been a series finale as one for the season, considering that things were too vague even to be considered unresolved, and Showtime conspicuously didn’t provide any promos suggesting that the show would be back.  The ratings this season haven’t been particularly good, but they’ve kept up with the numbers for Nurse Jackie (which is renewed) and The Borgias, so if the network decides to let the series end, it will be more for creative reasons than ratings.  The only reason to miss The Big C would be for the acting, and Linney, Platt and Hickey are all sure to be in demand for other roles if this series goes away.

Television shows go into remission the same way patients do, and the 2d season of The Big C suggested that the series might have a chance for long-term survival.  But Season 3 was a bust, and the test results are unpromising.  It may be time to let this one go.

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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."