The Big C has an always-the-bridesmaid status on Showtime: It’s not as sexy as Weeds or as prestigious as Nurse Jackie, and it doesn’t have the loopy hook The United States of Tara (RIP) did. The cancer comedy! With Laura Linney! It was a tough sell, and the spotty first season didn’t help. Despite strong performances, there was an irritating narrative paralysis because Kathy (Linney) didn’t tell anyone about her terminal cancer diagnosis. This season, which premiered this past Monday (you can watch the first episode here), with Kathy’s secret out, the show has a different energy. And it’s way better. If you gave up on the show partway through last season, time to take another look. (Vulture’s seen the first four episodes, but this story doesn’t contain any spoilers.)
The biggest change is that the show has slightly scaled back how buffoonish Kathy’s husband, Paul (Oliver Platt), is. He’s still sort of buffoonish, but last season it was hard to understand why Kathy would spend any time with him at all, let alone have been married to him. Now that she finally told him about her illness, though, their relationship has moved into slightly more credible territory.
Or maybe it just seems more credible because the tone of the show has shifted away from clear realism. Last season, the show couldn’t quite decide if Kathy lived in the real world or not. She herself seemed coherent enough, but her brother, her friends, her spouse, her kid, her favorite student, and the neighbor she confided in all seemed pretty bizarre. This season, the show is more confident about its strangeness. Kathy lives in a world of heightened emotions and lowered inhibitions, where the characters comfortably approach caricature. Pairing Paul and Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) up last season would have seemed like overkill (how much attitude can one duo manage?), but now they seem like perfect foils for one another. It’s like a burden has been lifted from the series. Fly free, The Big C! Spread those wings!
There’s one small area of concern, though: Reid Scott, who play’s one of Kathy’s doctors. He’s terrific on the show, and he and Linney have a wonderful chemistry, but he doesn’t have enough to do in the first part of the season. If the show can figure out a way to integrate him more fully into the story for the second half of the season, The Big C will really be in business.