Sunday, August 15, 2010

Winning Linney makes "C" worth seeing

Could anyone other than Laura Linney make us love Cathy Jamison, the tightly wound heroine of Showtime's new dramedy "The Big C," premiering Monday at 10:30 p.m.? 

Certainly, Cathy, on paper, isn't all that easy to embrace, or even understand. Mom to a spoiled, practical-joking son, wife to a spoiled, onion-hating spouse (Oliver Platt, gleefully embracing his inner brat), and teacher to ungrateful students, Cathy finds out she has terminal skin cancer. Instead of sharing the information, Cathy -- who has spent most of her life putting her own wants aside to be the perfect suburban drone -- cuts loose.
She pours wine all over her painstakingly picked out couch. She boots the ungrateful husband. She insults a snarky, overweight student (a luminous Gabourey Sidibe, shutting up all those who thought that "Precious" might be a fluke). She orders only "desserts and liquor" when she goes out to eat.
All this sounds like it would be amusing, if sad. But Cathy is also severely wrong-headed in some of her actions. Understandably wanting to spend quality time with her son in the days she has left, Cathy actually ends up behaving in a way that could only send her son running from her.
She rejects any attempt to patch things up with her husband (to be fair, Platt makes this man-child someone you'd be a little leery about spending your final days with).
She insults and belittles people constantly (her snippy exit from a marriage counseling session seems particularly unnecessary).
And yet, Linney is so wonderfully appealing in the role, you can't help but root for Cathy, no matter how odd her actions seem. The role suits the actress to a tee. Linney's film work has shown that no one can play a repressed woman yearning to be free as ably as she (if you haven't seen "You Can Count on Me," stop reading now and go watch it. I'll wait).
Linney manages to be convincing no matter what curve the show's script throws her, be delivering it a lengthy monologue to a dog or holding up a bus with a paintball gun.
The script might too frequently go for easy targets (do we really need more jokes about touchy-feely support groups? Or self-righteous environmentalists?), but Linney sells every moment. It helps that she does get some  truly sharp and funny lines, as when she informs Sidibe "You can't be fat and mean."
The rest of the cast is fine too, including not just Sidibe, but also Phyllis Somerville, who injects new life into that tired sitcom standard, the cranky older neighbor, and Reid Scott, a Cathy's doctor. The latter is particularly good, and he and Linney have wonderful chemistry. A scene between the two of them, in which Cathy assesses his bed side manner, was one of the best, most honest moments in the three episodes I saw.
"The Big C" is uneven, and a bit too reminiscent of Showtime's other "troubled but likable ladies" series (e.g. "Nurse Jackie" and "Weeds"), but it is entertaining and Linney is a wholly welcome addition to the TV landscape.

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