'The Big C' Is No Cancer Comedy

There's an ongoing debate among television writers about whether or not a comedy has to actually be funny. The question invariably comes up in discussions of premium cable comedies, and particularly in the case of HBO's Hung, which presented itself as a sexy romp about a reluctant male gigolo before giving way to an elegiac and unfunny riff on the death of the American Dream. My take is that a comedy doesn't necessarily have to be funny, but it depends on the comedy. My issue with Hung is that its premise promises hilarity that never materializes, and no matter how many times I'm reminded that the show is going in another direction, its title and log line are incongruent with its mournful tone.

Though it continues to play second fiddle to HBO in the original-series department, Showtime has been able to find a toehold with this brand of hard-to-classify, half-hour dramedies in a way that has eluded HBO. The reason for their success is that unlike Hung, which takes an inherently comedic idea and mines it for pathos, Showtime's comedies take dark premises and inject them with laughs. When I'm watching the titular functioning drug addict of Nurse Jackie, for example, I forget that what I'm watching is supposed to be a comedy, so when Jackie rifles off a bitchy bon mot, it catches me off guard. Jackie and Showtime's other girl-powered comedies (Weeds and United States of Tara) lack the line-line-zinger structure of a traditional multicamera sitcom, but that works to their advantage—the jokes come at their own pace and usually earn the belly laughs they elicit. But Showtime's most daring series is also the newest addition to the its comedy slate. The Big C, which premieres tonight, is the network's unfunniest comedy yet. Whether or not this is a good thing, I'm not entirely sure yet based on the three episodes sent to critics.

Laura Linney headlines The Big C as Cathy Jamison, a prim, orderly high-school teacher who has been diagnosed with stage IV melanoma. The oncologist gives her a year to live, maybe 18 months if she's lucky. Naturally (or perhaps tritely), she takes the grim news as an opportunity to live her life more fully. As Linney has said in interviews, in spite of the "cancer comedy" label the show has been given, it's not a show about cancer as much as a show about a woman living with cancer. She's right in that the show is short on particulars about the disease, but with regard to the tone, it's an unimportant distinction. The Big C is, essentially, a half-hour drama with some quippy dialogue. And even at its zestiest, it's not terribly funny, as when Cathy engages in gallows humor about her condition with her doctor or the harridan who lives across the street.

The thing is, once you accept that "comedy" in this instance is no more literal a term than "baked Alaska," The Big C does all right for itself, but mostly because of Linney's characteristically wonderful performance. Cathy is a woman for whom melanoma becomes a catalyst for dealing with the other cancers in her life, namely her clueless husband (Oliver Platt), bratty son (Gabriel Basso), and smug, eco-warrior brother (John Benjamin Hickey). Linney imbues Cathy with an affability that belies both the fact that she's dying and the fact that she's kind of a Debbie Downer at times. Even as she makes the questionable choice to behave in all sorts of wacky ways while refusing to disclose her condition to her closest loved ones, Cathy remains sympathetic, not because she has melanoma, but because Linney shades the character in impressive ways.

The inevitable criticism of The Big C will be that it doesn't deal with the ugliness of a battle with cancer, the deteriorating health, finances, and resolve that enervate the disease's victims until the often untimely end. But it could. Even to look at the opening credits is to see that the show's producers have left themselves some wiggle room. It isn't the brash and costly opening sequence of a True Blood or even a Nurse Jackie, simply stark, white-on-black titles set to an unimposing instrumental theme. "You're going to be real popular this summer," Cathy's brother tells her in episode two. "I have no idea who I'm going to be this summer," she snaps. It seems The Big C doesn't know quite what it's going to be either in the long run, but it's modulating its tones such that the writers can decide as they go. What they've already decided, though the Showtime marketing team might be loath to admit it, is that it isn't a comedy.