April 29, 2013



THE BIG C: HEREAFTER – Monday 10PM on Showtime

THE BIG C has spent a lot of time trying not to be the show it was supposed to be.  TV shows, much like people, tend to want to go on for as long as possible, so although Darlene Hunt’s dramedy began with Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) being diagnosed with cancer, it found various ways over its initial 3 seasons to be about something other than dying.  Remissions, clinical trials–although the elapsed time of the series wasn’t as long as it felt to viewers (each TV season was, literally, another calendar season, so less than a year had passed), the show insisted on being about the mostly comic misadventures of Cathy, her husband Paul (Oliver Platt), and her brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), along with her teen son Adam (Gabriel Basso) and all-but-adopted surrogate daughter Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe).  Affairs were had, guest stars were shuttled in and out, and for the most part Cathy remained in fairly good health.

At the end of last season, though, both Cathy and the show itself were in more dire shape.  She was in Puerto Rico for Paul’s business trip, where she’d just gotten word from her oncologist Dr. Sherman (Alan Alda) that her tumors were growing again; we last saw her in a somewhat surreal setting, having been tangled up in fishing nets and brought on board a boat whose captain was conspicuously named “Angel.”  Meanwhile, the Big C ratings were facing a similar prognosis.  Showtime’s compromise decision on what to do with the show was to bring it back for 4 1-hour final episodes, with the word Hereafter added to its title.  The expectation is that this truncated miniseries will be Cathy’s last.

The final season premiere, written by Hunt and directed by Michael Engler, quickly positions itself, after a quick fake-out, in place and time.  That boat was a hallucination of Cathy’s, caused by tumors pressing on her brain, and “Angel” was actually the EMT technician who tended to her in Puerto Rico (although he keeps appearing to her now that she’s back home).  She had an operation which relieved that instant distress, and 5 months have passed, bringing us to September.  Cathy is clearly much sicker than we’ve ever seen her before, and The Big C settles down to being about the experience of knowing the end is truly near.

Stripping away much of the silliness that’s always been a big part of Big C is a decided improvement for a show that’s tended to reach too far for contrived punchlines.  Paul’s new career as a self-help guru comes in for its share of humor, but it’s now a job rather than an excuse for comic set-pieces, and Sean, while eccentric (he buys a pedicab to chauffeur Cathy about, rather than drive a car) is more grounded.  Linney’s standard excellence goes deeper; her two scenes in the episode with Alda are among the series’s best.  The one-hour format suits the show as well, giving a little breathing space to the characters and storylines.

Big C can still be an annoying show, particularly in its practice of setting up cardboard targets for Cathy’s righteously truth-telling venom, who in the premiere include the principal of the school where she teaches and an information booth lady at the local mall.  As soon as a good-looking assistant for Paul was introduced, I knew it was only a matter of time before Cathy aimed some bile her way, and sure enough, before the premiere was over, she was slimed.  Sometimes the show’s extravagant sentimentality also feels unearned, although the 16th birthday celebration for Adam that takes up the latter part of the premiere works well.  The series has always had a good heart, and it appears as though the limitations of this final season are helping to keep its worst excesses under control.  Not every TV show gets to make a proper farewell, but Big C’s exit may leave us saddened for the right reasons.


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."