'The Big C' review: Laura Linney's cancer comedy gets good prognosis

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When Showtime ordered the pilot for "The Big C" in 2009, it was going by another name: "The C Word." An unnecessarily crude double entendre for a series about cancer, it seemed like another easy joke for a network with a history of uneven comedic offerings.

Backpedaling ensued. And the less aggressively titled "The Big C" was picked up for a full season, with its classy ad campaign highlighting the series' greatest assets: Laura Linney and her remarkable ability to carry any project on her capable shoulders.

Not that "The Big C" needs to lean on Linney. The well-cast star is in service of the series' enviable ensemble and unfamiliar premise -- a whimsical take on the anguish and joys of Cathy Jamison, a woman just dealt a terminal Melanoma diagnoses.

The first episode skirts every cliche of medical drama. Cathy's tests, diagnosis and realization of her condition all happen off-screen, well before we first see her. Instead, the show picks off in the aftermath, with Cathy kicking her man-child husband out of the house, questioning her lifestyle and, aside from a few desperate moments, seeming quite invigorated by the opportunity to live however she likes for what time she has left.

We're led to assume that her existence thus far has been boring and conventional, but the individuals around her tell another story. Her husband ( Oliver Platt) is a moped-riding caricature of man who stopped maturing in college, her brother ( John Benjamin Hickey) is an electively homeless environmental crusader and her newly minted best friend ( Gabourey Sidibe, in her first post- "Precious" role) is a caustic high school student.

There's nothing mundane behind the scenes either. Actress Darlene Hunt ("Help Me Help You") created the series and Academy Award winner Bill Condon -- who's currently tackling the two-part adaptation of Twilight's bloody and salacious "Breaking Dawn" -- directed the pilot.

Three episodes in, it's clear that "The Big C" works as a television series. It entertainingly balances its charming, manageable cast with circumstances rarely explored in the serial format -- possibly never with such a tone. But that's also where it might trip up. It's established from the get-go that Cathy has fewer than two years to live. And given the expected success of its first season, additional orders don't seem out of the question.

It's hard enough to keep a series from cheating creative death when it doesn't have to navigate a main character on a fixed time table, so you'd think producers would want to sit down with Showtime and map out just where they see this going -- exactly what Cathy can't do herself.

Ignoring fate and seizing the proverbial day are at the core of "The Big C." So, like a pleasure cruise under ominous skies, we shouldn't be preoccupied with what lies ahead -- as long as we're enjoying the calm before the storm. Which, for the record, we are.

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Photo credit
: Showtime

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