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THE BIG C (Showtime)
(Mondays at 10:30/9:30c starting August 16, TRT: 28:43)
The network's description: "The centerpiece of the summer will be a big-ticket premiere night on Monday, August 16th beginning with the return of hit comedy WEEDS at 10pm PT/ET picking up after the shocking cliffhanger at the end of last season, followed by the debut of highly-anticipated new dark comedy series THE BIG C at 10:30pm, starring three-time Emmy(R) winner Laura Linney as a wife, mother and teacher who upends her life after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis. Emmy(R) nominee Oliver Platt (Huff, Frost/Nixon) stars as her immature, yet well-meaning husband, and Oscar(R) nominee Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) plays her precocious student. WEEDS viewers, still stunned by the last year's season finale, will finally learn what will become of the Botwins after Shane (Alexander Gould) clubbed Pilar (Kate del Castillo) to death."
What did they leave out? The show originally ran under the working title "The C Word."
The plot in a nutshell: It's the first day of summer and Minneapolis history teacher Catherine Jamison (Laura Linney, exuding the awesomeness that is Laura Linney) wants a pool in her backyard. You see one of her fondest childhood memories was playing in the pool where she perfected her "banana split and dive," the same kind of memories she wants to imprint on her layabout teenage son Adam (Gabriel Basso). It's the first of many changes she wants to instill in the coming year - whether it be eating desserts and liquor for meals; telling off the mean old lady (Phyllis Somerville) across the street about her unkempt lawn; or getting her mouthy student Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) to drop a few pounds - anything and everything to steer her away from the boring suburbanite existence she currently finds herself in.
No one however believes she's capable of making those kinds of leaps - from her homeless brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), who traded in his business school degree to rage against the machine outside the local big box store; to her man-child husband Paul (Oliver Platt), who routinely gets drunk and plays video games with his friends - as she can barely decide whether to buy the new couch from Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn to replace the one Paul spilled fruit punch on. Whatever she decides to do she's going to have to make it quickly as her clock is literally ticking - as the title implies, she's got cancer. And despite her ambition to change, she finds herself stuck in the same rut as usual. Furthermore she can't even bring herself to tell anyone as she'd rather suffer in silence, putting everyone else's needs ahead of hers. Thankfully she has a friend in her hunky doctor (Simon Kassianides) who presses her to break her current habits. So while that may not mean opening up to her family just yet, it does involve doing cartwheels when she feels like it and planning to burn that stupid couch.
What works: "The Big C" is one of those rare comedies where not a scene is wasted or the dialogue doesn't feel canned. It all begins with the insert-can't-do-it-justice-flattering-adjective-here Laura Linney who infuses Cathy with a distinct pathos that's part desperate housewife, part scared little girl. She's obviously handling the news of her impending death horribly but the way her struggle manifests itself is both hysterically funny and painfully touching. She wants to go out on her terms but it's not going to happen that way.
So whether it's telling off Andrea about her bad attitude ("You can't be fat and mean Andrea... fat people are jolly for a reason, fat repels people but joy attracts them. Now I know everyone's laughing at your cruel jokes but nobody's inviting you to the prom. So you can either be fat and jolly or a skinny bitch, it's up to you.") or revealing herself too vain to go through chemotherapy ("I've always really loved my hair. I cry every time I get it cut... My nose is another story, if you told me I was going to lose my nose..."); firing back at her widowed, hoping-the-next-day-is-the-last neighbor ("Well if you think you're going to be waiting at least one more day, do your neighbors a favor and mow your fucking grass.") or being crushed that her husband and son don't want to grow up, Cathy's journey is a wonderfully rocky one, ripe with the landmarks of all our fears about dying and a life unlived.
The rest of the cast is uniformly suburb - Hickey's unabashedly uncensored is Sean is a treat, as is Basso's Adam, who's picked up all his father's bad habits and then some (the most amusing being his flair for faking life-and-death situations to scare the crap out of Cathy). It's rare when a show can trot out a half-dozen characters - some of them with only a few lines of dialogue - and make them feel so complete and real. Darlene Hunt's script, even with the aforementioned ripe-for-promos quotes, isn't showy or over the top as it manages to earn all of its moments. The same applies to Bill Condon's direction, which is refreshingly subtle and natural.
What doesn't: Not one beat.
The bottom line: Showtime is swinging for the fences once again.