The cable TV network Showtime has specialized, in the last few years, in half-hour series about complicated women with major issues, starring some of TV's most gifted actresses. There's Edie Falco from "The Sopranos" as the star of "Nurse Jackie," Toni Collette playing multiple roles in "The United States of Tara," Mary-Louise Parker playing a mother, widow and drug dealer in "Weeds" and, beginning tonight, Laura Linney as a wife, mother and high school teacher who learns she has cancer in "The Big C."

Our TV critic David Bianculli previews that series, as well as tonight's season premiere of "Weeds."

DAVID BIANCULLI: Television already has one series about a character whose actions and reactions to life change completely after an unexpected diagnosis of terminal cancer. 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 cancer 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 makes 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 sunny outlook, which she finds positively repellent.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Big C")

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. LAURA LINNEY (Actor): (as Cathy Jamison) Oh, I'm sorry. I'm interrupting.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) No, no. Please. I'm Sheila.

Ms. LINNEY: (as Cathy Jamison) Cathy.

Unidentified Group: Welcome, Cathy.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) We're glad you're joining us. Why don't you tell us a little about you?

Ms. LINNEY: Oh, well, I'm Cathy Jamison. I'm 42. I have a husband and a child, neither of whom are speaking to me. There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) Cathy, do you have cancer?

Ms. LINNEY: Wow, really buried the lead there. Yes. Yes, I do - melanoma, stage four.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) Well. Since you came alone, why don't you partner with Leon there? Just pull up a chair.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Leon) Leukemia, stage two.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as Sheila) Well, good for you for coming, Cathy. As we say, cancer is a gift. It allows you to speak up in your life and say hey, life. This is what I want. But, before you speak up, you have to find you voice. Right, Mitchell?

Unidentified Man #2: (as Mitchell) Right.

BIANCULLI: Laura Linney is just right in this role. She's the reason to watch, and she never disappoints. And Oliver 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.

The people around Cathy, outside of 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 Laura 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 this 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, with Nancy, as she shoves her teen boys into the family car, embodying the polar opposite of a role model.

(Soundbite of TV show "Weeds")

Ms. MARY-LOUISE PARKER (Actor): (as Nancy Botwin) I am sorry, but now you have the handbook for what not to do. And as we drive far away from here, you can talk about the many ways in which I've failed you, or we can play license plate bingo. I'll let you decide.

(Soundbite of car door shutting)

Mr. HUNTER PARRISH (Actor): (as Silas Botwin) Move over.

Mr. ALEXANDER GOULD (Actor): (as Shane Botwin) Climb over me.

Mr. PARRISH: I'm not sitting on the hump. Move over.

Mr. GOULD: I'm already buckled.

Mr. PARRISH: Well, unbuckle and move to the middle.

Mr. GOULD: You really don't want to mess with me, you know.

Ms. PARKER: Move over now.

Mr. GOULD: Ow.

Mr. PARRISH: What is it with you and the violence?

Ms. PARKER: Don't play the whole I'm-a-killer-now card. That is unacceptable.

Mr. GOULD: Fine.

(Soundbite of car door shutting)

BIANCULLI: In the case of "Weeds," 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.

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

You can download podcasts of our show on our website:

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a recording from jazz singer Abbey Lincoln's final album, "Abbey Sings Abbey." She died Saturday at the age of 80. We'll feature an interview with her from our archive tomorrow. This is probably her best-known original song, "Throw it Away."

(Soundbite of song, "Throw it Away")

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN (Jazz Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I think about the life I live, a figure made of clay, and think about the things I lost, the things I gave away. And when I'm in a certain mood, I search the halls and look. One night I found these magic words in a magic book.

Throw it away. Throw it away. Give your life, give your love, each and every day. And keep your hand wide open. Let the sun shine through, 'cause you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you.

There's a hand that rocks the cradle, and a hand to help us stand with the gentle kind of motion as it moves across the land. And the hand's unclenched and open, gifts of life and love it brings. So keep your hand wide open if you're needing anything.

Throw it away. Throw it away. Give your love, live your life, each and every day. And keep your hand wide open. Let the sun shine through 'cause you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you.

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