Ellen Gray: Laura Linney's Cathy on 'The Big C' is a typical Showtime character

Oliver Platt and Laura Linney star in Showtime's "The Big C."
Oliver Platt and Laura Linney star in Showtime's "The Big C."
Posted: August 16, 2010

THE BIG C. 10:30 tonight, Showtime.

LONG BEFORE Laura Linney appeared on the scene as a cranky cancer patient in "The Big C," Showtime had already established itself as the network for characters who were fed up and weren't going to be taking it anymore.

"It" being, variously, downsizing after a death in the family ("Weeds"), living in a constant state of emergency without benefit of medication ("Nurse Jackie"), being required to take medication to suppress excess personalities ("United States of Tara") or remaining faithful to one person in an environment where temptation was everywhere ("Californication" and "The Tudors").

Did I mention that Showtime classifies all but one of these series as comedies?

Certainly it says something about the premium cable channel that one of its most disciplined characters is a guy named "Dexter" whose hobby involves killing and dismembering other human beings.

So it almost goes without saying that when a repressed Minneapolis schoolteacher named Cathy Jamison (Linney) is diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma - a particularly deadly form of skin cancer - in "The Big C," which premieres tonight after the Season 6 opener of "Weeds," her plan will be to begin seizing as many days as she might have left with an energy that will leave her unsuspecting family reeling.

Yes, unsuspecting.

Because while most people's instinct might be to share their very bad news with those closest to them, Cathy, it quickly becomes clear, isn't most people.

She's a Showtime character.

And like most Showtime characters, she makes her own (or her writers') rules, whether it's deciding to dig a swimming pool in a yard barely big enough for a hot tub or flashing her breasts at her bashful young hottie of a doctor ("My Boys' " Reid Scott) and demanding his opinion.

Facing the beginning of what may be her last summer, she's kicked out her man-child of a husband (Oliver Platt) and clamped down on their teenage son (Gabriel Basso) - clearly fearing that he's on the road to driving his own future wife crazy - but may be finally bonding with her eccentric brother (John Benjamin Hickey), whose choice to remain homeless for political reasons marks him as yet another Showtime type.

At work, she's decided to use her newfound moxie to harangue one of her sassier students ("Precious' " Gabourey Sidibe) into losing weight, an exercise apparently meant to indicate that she's no longer observing conventional boundaries.

How far you buy into this fantasy may well correlate to where you come down on the woman at the center of "Eat Pray Love" - heroine or hedonist? - but here's the thing about Showtime characters: They tend to be played by amazing actors: Edie Falco, Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Mary-Louise Parker and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, to name a few.

And now, Linney, whose witty, energetic performance in "The Big C" will surprise no one who loves the kind of fresh-scrubbed intelligence she's long brought to women who are always a little more complicated than they look at first, from Mary Ann in "Tales of the City" to Abigail in "John Adams."

The temptation to judge Cathy on how we might react personally may be overwhelming - most of us may never consider serial-killing or even peddling pot as a lifestyle choice, but death stalks everyone - but "The Big C" isn't about us. It's about Cathy.

I'm not sure how many belly laughs Linney will be able to wring from "The Big C," but I can't imagine a more perfect mouthpiece for a woman who's literally dying to be heard.

Basic cable, basic sitcoms

Comedy isn't actually measured by the number of cameras trained on the actors at any particular moment, but it might as well be from the way the wind shifts between shows with living-room sets and studio audiences and those filmed far from the madding crowds.

What's funny about this? Just as some broadcast programmers have moved away from the multi-camera sitcoms whose production styles go all the way back to "I Love Lucy" to better compete with cable's slicker offerings, cable sometimes can't resist the lure of the traditional, and often cheaper, format.

Among the latest to try: ABC Family and Comedy Central, both of which have shows premiering tomorrow that wouldn't have looked out of place in 1985.

Although in 1985, "Who's the Boss?" had already been on the air for a year and ABC Family's "Melissa & Joey" (8 and 8:30 p.m. tomorrow) might been seen as an even more obvious ripoff.

Former teen stars Melissa Joan Hart ("Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," "Clarissa Explains It All") and Jenkintown's Joseph/Joey/Joe Lawrence ("Blossom") play employer and "manny," respectively, in an odd-couple pairing whose oddest feature is Lawrence's shaved head.

Predictable and intermittently crude, it's a terrible place for two now-adult actors to be showcasing themselves, and if you ever loved either of them, the polite thing would be to pretend they aren't even there.

Also occasionally crude but less predictable is "Big Lake" (10 and 10:30 p.m. tomorrow, Comedy Central), a show from Will Ferrell, Chris Henchy and Malvern's Adam McKay about a financial whiz kid named Josh (Chris Gethard) who returns home to Pennsylvania after losing his high-powered job and his parents' life savings.

But, hey, he's reunited with his lifelong buddy (Horatio Sanz), who's out of prison now, and his old history teacher (Chris Parnell), whose grasp of his subject seems a little slippery.

Oh, and Josh's perfect little brother (Dylan Blue)? Turns out he's really Tony Soprano.

I might not believe for a moment that any of these people actually exist in nature, much less Pennsylvania, but "Big Lake," with its wink and a nod to a format that always required suspension of disbelief, is at least more than willing to own its silliness. *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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