Even though death is part of the daily menu of our television and movies, dying–lingering, fatal illness–is much rarer. We prefer our deaths to be mere starting points for police investigations, or the byproduct of our fascination with serial killers–puzzles rather than human beings. Even on medical shows, patients who die rarely take up more than portions of a single episode. There’s a reason for this: there’s not much fun in watching someone sicken and die. (Even with virtually unanimous rave reviews and the Best Foreign Film Oscar under its belt, the recent Amour couldn’t crack $7M at the US boxoffice.) After three seasons of dodging the inevitable, this was the season when THE BIG C had to finally fasten its seatbelt and deal with the consequence of its subject matter. Although the show, reformatted to four one-hour episodes, was much more focused than it had been in previous seasons, and the core cast, led by the superb Laura Linney, did its level best, ultimately sentimentality and glibness, always Big C‘s biggest weaknesses, got the better of it, and it settled for a series of easy emotional outs.
The final episode, written by series creator Darlene Hunt and Executive Producer Jenny Bicks, and directed by Michael Engler, set up several storylines that had to be resolved before Cathy Jamison (Linney) could make her exit. The hospice coverage provided by her insurer was running out, meaning that Cathy would have to be returned, very much against her will, back to her house, the one place where she didn’t want to die. This caused her to consider the possibility of assisted suicide. Meanwhile, her brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) was still planning to donate his kidney to a needy recipient, a plot that played out as a weak, predictable gag when the recipient turned out to be a rich, bigoted Republican. Cathy suddenly decided that she had to make peace with her alcoholic, selfish father (guest star Brian Dennehy). Her husband Paul (Oliver Platt) was finding it harder and harder to deal with her passing. Surrogate daughter Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) was offered the summer internship of her dreams (by Isaac Mizrahi, who’s been playing himself throughout the season)–but it would take her away from Cathy. And son Adam (Gabriel Basso) was constantly on errands that were less mysterious than the show clearly wanted them to be. All of these were dealt with by neat contrivance, just as–although Cathy sometimes talked about her specific symptoms–the ravages of her illness were made visible only through Linney’s pale complexion and an occasionally blurry point-of-view shot, while her death was the most peaceful, picture-perfect departure imaginable (followed by some third-rate spiritual surrealism).
This isn’t to say that it would have been in any way easy to tell a story about the messiness and agony of actual death in a way that would make people tune in week after week. But the stakes are very high when creative artists choose to deal with the more profound issues of human existence, and an exquisitely-timed going gentle into that good night just doesn’t cut it. The Big C had its moments this season, notably Episode 3, which dealt with Cathy’s time living at the hospice. But despite very strong performances by everyone and a moving, completely committed one by Linney, it wasn’t equal to the huge challenges of its premise (last season’s breast cancer storyline on Parenthood did a much better job with similar subject matter, although it had somewhat easier going because its patient recovered). The question of how the show would keep its cutting comic edge when things got depressing was that it didn’t, for the most part, even try–despite some one-liners and a few supposedly humorous stories (like the kidney donation), this season of Big C was essentially a drama.
Here lies The Big C: a fair try at doing something very difficult, and one that, over its 4 seasons, provided a moderate amount of laughs and well-judged, jarring shifts in tone. It also gave Laura Linney opportunity to play a role that let her be sexy, funny, angry, miserable, warm-hearted, misguided and more (this season alone, how many actresses ever get to play a 4-hour death scene?). In the end, though, it passed away without ever quite accomplishing its heady goals.