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Clunky Characters, Cancer Characterize 'Big C'

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Clunky Characters, Cancer Characterize 'Big C'

Television

Clunky Characters, Cancer Characterize 'Big C'

Clunky Characters, Cancer Characterize 'Big C'

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Laura Linney plays a suburban mom who discovers she has cancer in The Big C. "She's the reason to watch," says critic David Bianculli. Jordin Althaus/Showtime hide caption

toggle caption Jordin Althaus/Showtime

Laura Linney plays a suburban mom who discovers she has cancer in The Big C. "She's the reason to watch," says critic David Bianculli.

Jordin Althaus/Showtime

Television already has one series about a character whose actions and reactions change completely after an unexpected terminal-cancer diagnosis. That would be AMC's Breaking Bad, starring Bryan Cranston as a meek high-school science teacher who reacts to his own medical death sentence by making and selling crystal meth — to provide for his wife and family after he's gone. It's a brilliant show, but it's hard to imagine a TV series with a less attractive thumbnail description.

In The Big C, premiering Monday night on Showtime, Laura Linney plays Cathy Jamison, who's also a high-school teacher who gets cancer. She has a teen son who's a spoiled brat and a husband, played by Oliver Platt, who's another spoiled brat — and whom she throws out of the house as one of her first reactions to her diagnosis. Heavy into denial, she doesn't tell either of them about what's happening to her — and it's not until episode three, in fact, that she takes the first steps toward acceptance by barging in on a cancer support group. But the upfront honesty she encounters there isn't easy for her to accept — nor is the group's sunny outlook, which she finds positively repellent.

Laura Linney is just right in this role — she's the reason to watch, and she never disappoints. And Platt, as her husband, is really good, too. They're the core of a good show, and what's best about The Big C.

Unfortunately, series creator Darlene Hunt, whose biggest writing credits include the new 90210, and executive producer Jenny Bicks, of Sex and the City and Men in Trees and a cancer survivor herself, have overloaded this show with characters that just don't ring true. In fact, they don't ring at all. They just sort of clunk.

Gabourey Sidibe plays a sassy high school student in Showtime's The Big C. Jordin Althaus/Showtime hide caption

toggle caption Jordin Althaus/Showtime

Gabourey Sidibe plays a sassy high school student in Showtime's The Big C.

Jordin Althaus/Showtime

The people around Cathy, aside from her husband and son, are little more than cartoons. There's her younger brother, who's homeless. Her across-the-street neighbor, who's crotchety and solitary. And a sassy high-school student, played by Gabourey Sidibe. While Linney elevates The Big C, these other poorly conceived characters drag it down.

Now compare that to Weeds, where Mary-Louise Parker, as suburban pot dealer Nancy Botwin, has been raising comic hell for years now. Once again, as the season begins, she's forced to load up her family and flee — this time because her youngest son, Shane, just killed a woman who was threatening his mother. So once again, Weeds is about to reinvent itself.

And in the case of this black comedy, everyone surrounding Nancy is a believable, entertaining, complicated character played by a talented actor. Justin Kirk, as her brother-in-law, is amazingly funny as always. The Big C, on the other hand, has a strong supporting cast — but the writing is weak. Watch the two shows back to back, as Showtime is presenting them, and the comparisons are unavoidable — and, to The Big C, unfavorable. For its first few episodes, The Big C isn't just the title. It's the show's grade.

David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com, and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.

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