'The Big C' review: The paradox of Cathy Jamison's tart yet flavorless 'hereafter'

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Image Credit: David M. Russell/SHOWTIME

The Big C is bringing closure to cancer-stricken Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) with a four-episode miniseries. Subtitled hereafter, even the opening credits have a nostalgic air, scrapbooking through Cathy’s journey through illness. Gone along with her tranquil opening swim in her home pool, the too-good-to-be-true serenity of season’s 3 Puerto Rican escape (when Cathy quite literally jumped ship to make a new life with a fisherman) is quickly overwritten. Like a rock plunking into the aforementioned pool and creating ripples, the sometimes jarring opener was fun to watch at times, though viewers’ pleasure is slightly diminished by the fact that we’ve spent three seasons sympathizing with the perspective under the water.

We rejoin Cathy back in Minnesota, where she’s freezing from the inside out and depressed by her own powerlessness. Her lists these days aren’t of the bucket variety but rather a series of paradoxes: Her opt-in for chemo treatments offers, at best, another year of life — but that year will be full of tremendous exhaustion, incontinence, and a slower march to her own inevitable death. She can fend off her physical weakening with iron-rich red meat, but all food tastes like Play-Doh since the chemo treatments muted her taste buds. 

It’s no surprise, then, that Cathy is mired in depression — the fourth stage of the Kübler-Ross model, around which creator Darlene Hunt modeled the show. On a human level, Cathy’s self-reflection and loneliness are completely understandable. Entertainment-wise, it’s a nonstarter. The denial stage, explored in season 1, may have been unsustainable, but it was also exactly the kind of catalyst for Cathy as a character that drew us in. Turns out, day drinking and misguided flings (with Idris Elba, no less) just make for better TV than sickness-imposed staycations in bed.

That’s not to say Cathy doesn’t get up to her old tricks during hereafter’s premiere. In its new miniseries format, each episode has been upsized to an hour, and Cathy finally rises above her despair around the 30-minute mark: Unable to delight in the sweetness of her favorite cherry pie from Kowalski’s, Cathy unleashes her tart tongue on a well-meaning but insensitive mall employee; when Cathy’s boss calls out for falling short in her history curriculum (or, as Cathy macabrely puts, “lessons about the dead, taught by the dying”), Cathy seizes control of the high school PA system for a grand goodbye speech; and, knowing that her estranged husband Paul (Oliver Platt) is essentially waiting for her to die so he can move on, Cathy takes out her resentment on Paul’s perky new assistant Amber (Liz Holtan). These passing moments are just that, though: passing — for Cathy, they’re illusory attempts at control that are unceremoniously brought back to earth like Cathy after a bouncy castle blunder at Adam’s “sweet sucks-teen” party. For viewers, this parade of distractions becomes frustrating, demoralizing even, after a while.

With such a short runway left for Cathy & Co., these distractions could bog down the miniseries’ remaining three hours. Though the premiere sheds new light on her no-nonsense doctor (Alan Alda) and gives Cathy a refreshingly frank psychologist (Kathy Najimy), it does best when it keeps it in the family. Building on Linney and costar John Benjamin Hickey’s chemistry, a hamburger-eating challenge victory for Cathy and her free-wheeling freegan brother Sean (Hickey) adds a dash of spice… at least until Cathy upchucks five pounds of well-done ground beef into the nearest garbage can. Likewise, a closing scene between Cathy and son Adam (Gabriel Basso) calls back to the pith and pathos of the first season. Alas, these highlights make up a small fraction of the double-stuffed premiere. If the rest of the miniseries follows suit, Cathy’s slow slog to acceptance could prove as bland as her once-favorite cherry pie. B–

The Big C: hereafter premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.

Read more:
‘The Big C’ gets final season
‘The Big C': Tammy Blanchard talks TV’s hottest ‘throuple’
‘The Big C’ star Gabourey Sidibe: What’s On My iPod

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