Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 16, 2010 - The Big C

This evening, I take a look at Showtime’s new “dramedy” on cancer – The Big C, starring Laura Linney. We don’t have Showtime on our cable contract, but I happen to notice that the full first episode is available as a preview on Showtime’s website.

I presume the 30-minute video I saw was the whole episode. There was a little disclaimer about it having been edited for online viewing, but I take that to mean that the curse words were muted (which they were).

Laura plays Cathy, a Minneapolis high-school teacher who’s just learned she’s got stage 4 melanoma. She declines treatment, and decides not to tell anyone, not even her family. The first episode is all about her bouncing from one wildly inappropriate, self-destructive behavior to another: impulsively deciding to have a swimming pool dug in her front yard, without getting the necessary permits; treating an obnoxious summer-school student with a savage cruelty the writers likely intend to be funny, but isn’t; telling off the cranky, reclusive old lady who lives across the street; overindulging in goopy desserts, liquor and even a cigarette she confiscated from a student.

Yes, I know diagnosis is a terrifying, world-shaking time – and everyone deserves to be cut a little slack in the midst of it – but no one is that crazy.

Linney does a spectacular role of acting the part, but it’s the script that’s over the top. This is a shame, because we cancer survivors could really use an actor of her caliber telling our story. She gets it right on the gut level, in a way that makes viewers identify with her, but she’s shackled by that unrealistic script.

The scene showing her interaction with her doctor is particularly problematic. She tells someone she’s going off to the dermatologist, but this guy is doing more with cancer treatment than any dermatologist I’ve ever heard of. I suppose, in retrospect, he’s really meant to be her oncologist, and the dermatologist story is a little cover-up on her part, but the script never reveals that.

Even as an oncologist, though, he’s unrealistic. There’s a flashback showing Cathy in his office, viewing her tumor on an x-ray film. It’s clearly an x-ray, not a CT or PET Scan.

He also admits to Cathy that she's his "first." First what? Cancer patient? (Not likely, given his years of specialist training.) His first terminal patient? (Again, not likely he missed that experience, if he's been an oncology resident). His first patient to decline all treatment from the get-go? (Maybe a little less unlikely, but not much.) His first melanoma patient? (If that's true, Cathy would be well advised to run as fast as she can, putting as much distance between herself and this rookie as possible.)

So, the writer and director would have us believe that a sensitive and intelligent professional in her late 40s or early 50s, with everything to live for, is going to chuck it all, declining treatment and keeping her diagnosis secret from everyone in her life, based on something she saw on an x-ray film in her doctor’s office? No follow-up tests. No second opinion. Not even a careful weighing of the treatment options, before coming to that momentous decision.

“I’ve always loved my hair,” Cathy tells her doctor, explaining why she’s ignoring his medical advice and declining treatment. “I cry every time I get it cut.”

Now, maybe that’s a feeble attempt at a joke on her part, but if that’s not the case (and there’s no clear indication it is), then the Minneapolis Board of Education is saddled with an astoundingly airheaded high-school history teacher.

The scene is both medically and psychologically inaccurate, and that’s a real missed opportunity – especially since what happens in her doctor’s office is the premise on which the whole series is based.

What, Showtime was too stingy to spring for a decent medical advisor?

Washington Post reviewer Hank Stuever makes a similar point:

“I’ve known people whose loved ones avoided treatment and kept cancer a secret until it was too late. Cathy’s decision is ‘The Big C’s’ most difficult hurdle – a wildly selfish and passive-aggressive act that is difficult to find funny. It also doesn’t seem believable in Cathy’s case – she just seems too smart and articulate to deliberately withhold something like this, unless she’s just being mean. Whatever her reasons, Cathy’s secret cancer does provide ‘The Big C’ a doorway to a fascinating story arc, in which the people in her life come across as unfailingly more selfish than she’s attempting to be.”

While this first episode does a not-so-good job of portraying the personal and medical aspects of a newly-diagnosed cancer patient’s life, it does depict one thing accurately: our society’s fear of cancer. The series, of course, is really about death, and what it means to go on living in its shadow with strength and dignity. It’s significant that the disease chosen as the vehicle for this philosophical and psychological exploration is cancer. The problem is that not all cancers are alike, and not even a metastasized, stage 4 melanoma is a reason to decide to forgo all treatment, especially for a newly-diagnosed patient.

Those quibbles aside, I do recommend the series, based on what I saw. I’d watch it myself if I had Showtime. Guess I’ll have to rent the subsequent episodes on DVD, once they’re available.


maggie said...

Not gonna watch this trainwreck.

Anonymous said...

Well, the 5 year survival rate for Stage IV melanoma is 7% to 10%. So maybe that means we can look to one to two seasons of this dog -- tops.

Julie Orvis Marcinkiewicz said...

I heard David Bianculli review of this show on Fresh Air yesterday and he essentially said the samething-the writing was bad. Good to read your very clear explanations of the issues...no reason to go seek this one out.

Carl said...

I'm still interested in seeing more episodes, if I can find it on DVD later. It's an interesting premise, and the acting really is very good.

LeighSW said...

Well, that's disappointing. Perhaps if the show's writers are open to constructive criticism, it'll get back on the right track. It does sound like it has potential.