Tonight’s episode peaks early, when Adam confronts his mother about her affair, which he’s just learned about from his father’s blog. (“Cancer, heart attacks, and now an affair? It’s like you guys are looking for ways to make my life miserable!”) While apologetic about the affair, Cathy feels that Adam should reserve some of his anger for his father, who had the bright idea of telling the world about it by mentioning it on his blog. One can see her point, and it may be that Adam’s failure to agree with her might seem a little implausible. People are funny, though, especially teenage boys. Anyway, the episode begins with a notion many times more implausible—i.e., that a teenage boy would be reading his father’s blog in the first place—and you can either accept that one or shrug, change the channel, and watch something else.
It’s worth accepting it just for the way Oliver Platt handles the subsequent scenes that grow out of it. He enters crowing that his latest post, the one with his wife’s adultery in it, has racked up 59 page views, which is 39 more than his previous record. Then, when Cathy tells him that their son was one of those page views, he makes a half-hearted stab at seeming contrite before veering odd into self-exculpation, tinged with a tug at her heartstrings: “I swear, since the operation, I can’t seem to think straight,” (He also mentions that he “can’t seem to eat enough bananas. What’s that about? You think maybe they put a baboon heart in me or something?”) When Cathy accuses him of having gone easy on himself by writing about her affair but neglecting to mention his own, he reasonably explains that he’s covering his life in chronological order and hasn’t gotten to his affair yet. (Now that he thinks about it, maybe he should just leave that part out.) He also denies—again, very reasonably—having dredged up the incident to imply that she helped cause his heart attack. He knows she didn’t give him a heart attack: “Life did. And you were part of my life.” It’s only after a great deal of explaining, rationalizing, and back-pedaling that he voices the first thought that would occur to most people in his position: Adam told her that he’d written about the affair in his blog? What, doesn’t she care enough about him to read it herself?
Platt also shines when Cathy forces him to tell Adam that his own record as a martial monogamist is not spotless. Stammering like a man with a gun in his face, he tells Adam that his mother shouldn’t be judged too harshly, and that from now on, there will be family discussions before anything of a personal nature is deemed blog-worthy, and, oh, by the way… Adam is hardly placated. “I don’t know what all this sudden honesty is about!” he cries. “I don’t want to know this shit!” Maybe The Big C would be a better show if Adam were put in charge of vetting the scripts.
Too much of this episode is sunk in the thrill that the writers seem to get out of having the characters behave as if they have Tourette’s. There are any number of thematic reasons that can be coughed up, Oliver Platt-style, to justify this. The dirty talk and acting out is a sign of rude life in the face of Cathy’s illness and the other characters’ misfortunes. In the case of Sean, it’s a way to illustrate how well his meds are working, or whether he’s staying on top of them. Maybe there’s something about Laura Linney’s fresh-scrubbed quality that automatically makes people want to write Charles Bukowski numbers for her to deliver. And, of course, this is a series on Showtime, which has been turning itself into one of those networks where any show without its quota of adult-diaper jokes and lowlife diatribes is in danger of being kept after school.
In the end, though, a lot of it is so forced that it just feels like the show is fighting to hold the attention of anyone who happened to discover it while channel-surfing just when something out-freaking-rageous was going down. As Sean, John Benjamin Hickey is currently catching the worst of this. In previous seasons, Hickey had Cynthia Nixon to give him a partner to use as a focus point and the promise of fatherhood to give his character a motive for wanting to stabilize. Now, he’s twisting in the wind, dealing with some joker who keeps calling his new phone in the hope of arranging a deal for gay sex and offering to do Gabourney Sidibe’s hair with the explanation that he learned to braid African-American women’s hair as a quid pro quo for a former girlfriend. In exchange, she agreed to let her pubic hair grow out. “It was like she was smuggling Diana Ross in her panties.” He’s also taken a job as a janitor at the high school, which gives him the chance not just to empty trash cans but to deliver a speech to a bunch of teenage girls about their disgusting public-bathroom habits, which he feels the need to address, even though he is “a big fan of your gender.”
Maybe this stuff wouldn’t be so tough to watch if there were other characters on the show, instead of stuffed dummies for the regulars to lecture. The teenage girls just stare at Sean, waiting patiently for his lips to stop moving before getting on with their lives. When Sidibe’s efforts to use her new awareness of her heritage in school by reactivating the Black Studies Association gets her tossed into detention, she takes advantage of the high percentage of black kids there to declare the detention room the new Black Studies Association (or “AFRO: Africans For Rediscovering Ourselves). When she finishes talking, a few of the guys raise their fists in the air, but nobody really interacts with her; That would involve turning them into real people with their own ideas and agendas, which would involve more work for the writers, but might also kick-start the scene into life.
A few scenes of actual give and take between the regulars and the occasional free agent would do a lot more for The Big C than all this manufactured wildness. There’s a scene in a bar here where Laura Linney arm-wrestles a woman and then accepts a ride on the back of her motorcycle. The woman seems to be flirting with her, and for a few seconds it looks as if she might become someone Cathy could develop an unexpected rapport with, especially in a strange moment when she sees a tattoo on the woman’s back and stares at it in a way that make you wonder what she’s thinking. A few scenes later, she accepts a cigarette from some guy, and when his hand is framed in close-up, so you can see there’s a tattoo on it, the real reason for these people to even be in the show becomes too clear. The expected fade-out scene of good-girl Cathy visiting a tattoo parlor arrives right on schedule.