I came very, very close to giving up on The Big C. Watching a main character use being diagnosed with cancer as a free ticket to indulge in incredibly selfish behavior that hurt everyone that loves her just was not appealing to me. Cathy (Laura Linney) just does about everything to destroy what she has left of life including cheating on her admittedly immature husband (Oliver Platt) with a sexy Brit Idris Elba, kicks him out of the house, smothers her son, and acts all self righteous about it. And here’s the worst part, she does it all without telling anyone that she has cancer.
About the only good things she does is reconnect with green-freak brother, Sean, and befriend her cranky, elderly neighbor, Marlene. Sean is a slight nutcase (he dumpster dives for food and refuses to sleep inside), but he slowly reveals that his sister is the only real human connection he has and is incredibly grateful that his sister sought him out. Marlene, meanwhile, is the dispenser of irascible wisdom, who is extremely kind but hides it behind a misanthropic exterior (what old person doesn’t?), and is starting to show signs of Alzheimer’s.
Most of the season revolves around Cathy being that other c word. She throws hissy fits, expects everyone to do what she wants them to do, and does whatever she wants just because she’s dying. Oh, and she refuses to get any treatment. As you can imagine, this doesn’t make for engaging television. Your main character is an asshole and there’s no end in sight.
Except, suddenly, the things that eventually happens to assholes start happening to Cathy. The emptiness of her fulfillment now life becomes apparent, she’s losing everyone she loves, even the people she was trying to keep close, and Marlene, finally, finally slaps her in the God damn face and tells her to get real.
That slap was probably the turning point in the show, from the true heart of the show. Marlene is without a doubt the best part of this show. She starts off as a cliche but she is played extremely well and with a realism that escapes the fact that we’ve all seen this type of character for. Heck, we all KNOW this type of person in real life. So we can excuse the initial shallowness.
And it goes to show that the season’s last two episodes, the best episodes of the season and truly great episodes of television, revolve a bit around Marlene and what she does and has to say. Cathy learns all the lessons you’ve been waiting around for her to learn, but all the emotional beats are hit perfectly. But the best part is the release her family gets from the situation, and their reactions to the whole mess. It’s truly touching, tough, and real stuff that comes out of how her family reacts to Cathy finally coming clean and agreeing to go under treatments. And that’s how this season ends us, with the whole thing ready to move on to a better place.
It’s strange that a show I was ready to bail on changed everything in the space of two episodes, basically. And now it’s a show I’m actually excited to see in the next season. The last two episodes brought focus to everything before it, showing the fallacy of reviewing individual episodes of serial television (but that is a essay for another day). The Big C already had the core premise and characters going for it, or I wouldn’t have given it that much a benefit. Now it finally find a course for the story to take that actually has real emotional stakes and feels like things that actual human beings would do. Go figure that that’s what it takes to make a decent show. Bring on Season 2.