The Big C started out as a show I was prepared to make excuses for. It steadily degenerated into a show that put most of its creative energy into mastering the art of the phony-cliffhanger season finale fake-out. In the first season, the writing was often pat and uninspired, and some of the central ideas, such as the heroine Cathy’s decision not to tell her family that she had been diagnosed with cancer, felt misconceived. But with actors like Laura Linney as Cathy and Oliver Platt as her clueless, childish, but basically decent husband, Paul, it was easy to get wrapped up in the show while rooting for it to pull itself together. That didn’t happen in the second season, but the show didn’t get a lot worse, and the season did end with a bang: Cathy, who had begun to experience visions of dead friends, was running a marathon and saw her husband waiting for her at the finish line, only to realize, from the comments of onlookers, that he wasn’t physically present.
It turned out that Paul was off somewhere dying of a heart attack, but disappointingly, he got better. This is no comment on Platt’s performance, but the show could have used an unexpected tragedy to help it focus. Instead, the third season got worse and worse, until it had become a self-righteous victimization fantasy, in which Cathy’s husband, her teenage son Adam, and others were indicted for having their own selfish concerns and failing to understand what she was going through. In the season finale, everyone ran off to Puerto Rico, where Cathy disappeared during a scuba diving lesson.
She wound up on a fishing boat with a guy who didn’t speak any English but who looked into her eyes with great sympathetic curiosity. While Paul was shown picking up a woman and Adam remained all tied up with his adolescent bullshit, Cathy decided to float away with her attractive, enigmatic rescuer. The new, concluding season that premiered four weeks ago reveals that, actually, she nearly drowned, and all that stuff about the fishing boat (and, presumably, what happened to the other characters, including Paul’s adultery) was just a near-death hallucination; not only that, but the fisherman continues to turn up on the periphery of her consciousness and is presumably an angel of death. It’s not every TV show that earns the right to be made vicious fun of by both Bobby Ewing and M. Night Shyamalan.
This season of four episodes has been billed as a special “limited series event,” and nothing about it makes much sense, including its existence. The previous season consisted of 10 half-hour episodes, and so four episodes at least sounds quick and dirty, until you notice that each of them is now an hour long. At least not chopping them up into half hours gets them onto and off of the schedule faster, but still, who was still into this series enough that they needed closure? At this point, Laura Linney has no character left to play. All the hateful feelings she got to express toward her unappreciative family last season, which converged in that finale—even if the things that happened in it weren’t real, Cathy must have had good reason for her subconscious to fantasize in that direction, right?—have just been washed away, leaving four hours mostly devoted to mushy, tender emotions.
The worst that can be said for Paul now is that, for a while, he’s so depressed over his wife’s impending death that he can’t get out of bed and set a proper example for their son. There’s a tease involving Adam’s grades, which have dropped off to the point that his mother is concerned that she won’t live to see him graduate. But then, in tonight’s finale, the principal shows up at Cathy’s home and, after letting Cathy and Paul assume the worst for an unconscionably long period of time, reveals that Adam’s buckled down and aced so many online courses that he’s ready to graduate a week earlier, right there in the living room. It’s what would have happened on The Brady Bunch, if there had been an episode of The Brady Bunch where Greg is doing poorly in school because he can’t sleep at night because of the sound of Carol retching from the chemo.
So Laura Linney doesn’t get to put a cherry on top of her performance in the early episodes. She can at least take some pride in knowing that this show attracted a lot of quality name talent that can’t have had much reason to be interested, except that it gave them a chance to work with her. Brian Dennehy shows up in the finale, reprising the thankless role of Cathy’s abrasive, bullying, penny-pinching dad; someone must have thought that wasn’t a charmless enough combination of attributes, so he also spends pretty much the whole episode drunk off his ass. And Alan Alda checked in for much of the season as Cathy’s brilliant, older oncologist. (Her smitten, younger oncologist used to be played by Reid Scott, who looks much more comfortable calling people douchebags on Veep than he ever did blinking back the tears from his unrequited longing for his favorite patient.)
In the season premiere, Alda had a testy scene in which, trying to wrap up a visit, he asked Cathy, “Are we done, or do you have any more questions that I’ve already given you the answers to?” When she reminded him that she was dying, he snapped, “Which makes you special, how?” Say what you like about his bedside manner (or about how totally unsurprising the surprise explanation for his behavior was), it was refreshing. He seemed to be the only person on the show who’d sat through the previous seasons and was as fed up with it all as the audience. But then, a couple of episodes later, he drifted back in, having been guzzling the same spacey, feel-good New Age Kool-Aid as the other characters. “Death has gotten a bad rap,” he purred. “It’s the only thing that makes life worthwhile.” Somewhere, Hawkeye (“Don’t let the bastard win!”) Pierce is puking.
- The finale offers a variation on the old “a priest, a rabbi, and a Muslim walk into a bar” joke for people who don’t get jokes. Here, a priest, a rabbi, and a Muslim walk into the hospice, and Cathy basically invites them to take turns convincing her which God she should pray to. They all make their cases, and then, we see each of them performing a ritual over her sickbed. The Big C is for people who’ll see this as deep and sophisticated and not as a gross exercise in C.Y.A.
- In the lamest and probably most attention-getting subplot of the season, Cathy’s former student and friend Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) took a fashion-design class with Isaac Mizrahi. Does Mizrahi forsee any judging appearances on Project Runway All Stars in his future? Because after taking part in this show and delivering such lines as, “Wow, I haven’t seen anyone look so scared since Vera Wang thought she’d gained two pounds!” he’s not going to be very convincing as an arbiter of style and taste.