'The Big C' Treats Cancer as Comedy

PHOTO Laura Linney is shown in a scene from "The Big C."

Cancer, comedy: just putting the two words next to each other seems wrong, like playing Katy Perry at a funeral.

But making the wrong feel so right is Showtime's speciality. (See: "Dexter," "Californication," "Weeds.") Now comes "The Big C," which premieres tonight on the cable channel, about a teacher (Laura Linney) who finds out she has stage four melanoma and decides she doesn't want to do a damn thing about it.

VIDEO: Laura Linney stars in Showtimes cancer comedy, "The Big C."
'The Big C' Cancer Diet: 'Desserts and Liquor'

Well, that's not entirely true -- Linney's character, Cathy Jamison, doesn't want the pain, the helplessness, the ordeal of treating cancer. (She tells her doctor that she especially does not want to lose her lovely blond locks of hair.) Initially, she doesn't even tell her estranged husband (Oliver Platt) or her family about her diagnosis.

But she does use the disease as an excuse to "grab life by the balls." That means installing a full-length swimming pool in her too-tiny front yard, adopting a diet of desserts and liquor, using sick practical jokes to con her son into learning valuable life lessons, and spilling red wine on her beige couch with abandon.

This is not a teary, hug-filled, "everything's going to be OK" portrayal of terminal disease. This is "well, I'm out of here soon, so I'm going to ditch this type-A facade, do a few cartwheels, pour a drink, light up a cigarette and have some fun."

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"I don't think people are going to watch it thinking she suffers nobly with a tear in her eye," said John Benjamin Hickey, who plays Cathy's eco-extremist brother, Sean. "I think really outrageous and extraordinary things happen in the first season of the show that will put to rest anyone's notion that this is going to be dark and serious."

For example: midway through "The Big C's" pilot, Cathy's teenage son walks into the bathroom to find what looks like his mother dead in a blood-filled bathtub. He runs away screaming -- while she slips into a robe and smirks, relishing her comeback for an earlier prank in which he pretended to chop off the tip of his finger while cutting vegetables. She then shoves him back into the bathroom, pours a pot of chili in the toilet, and tells him to learn how to use a plunger (sans the help of his iPhone, which she steals). She locks the door, turns up "I'll Take You There" and dumps half a bottle of red wine on the sofa before stretching out with a smile.

If she weren't sick, her behavior might make her seem so. But it's clear that Cathy is at a loss for how to handle her new reality. Her life is such a mess that tacking cancer on at the end turns the tragedy into a farce. She just separated from her man-child of a husband. Her actual child treats her with no respect. Her brother voluntarily eats trash from fast-food garbage cans. Her students tell her she's incompetent. And, drum roll please, she has cancer.

"I do think that it's darkly comic that she didn't realize how kooky her world was until now," said Darlene Hunt, who created "The Big C" and serves as co-executive producer with Linney. "So cancer kind of becomes the window into this new perspective. If you're going through a tough time, it would be nice to turn to someone who's really going to help you through it. To realize that you don't have anyone, while it's sad, the comedic version is 'Jeez, these people are nuts, who am I going to go to?'"

Initially, Hunt's humorous take on cancer didn't resonate with the industry or her peers.

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