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Linney’s Dying Teacher Cartwheels to Class, Aids Smelly Brother

Oliver Platt and Laura Linney in
Oliver Platt and Laura Linney in "The Big C." The TV drama is about a woman's struggle with a terminal disease. Photographer: Jordin Althaus/SHOWTIME via Bloomberg

Aug. 16 (Bloomberg) -- For a gal with cancer, Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) is pretty perky in “The Big C,” Showtime’s surprisingly amusing new show about living with a terminal disease.

Cathy is a Minneapolis schoolteacher who just found out she has malignant skin cancer that’s expected to kill her within a year. She’s also got a shaky marriage to a beefy drunk (Oliver Platt), plus a bratty prankster son (Gabriel Basso) who pretends to slice off a finger while helping mom prepare a salad.

On the bright side, her young doctor is developing the hots for her and the feeling seems to be mutual. Linney, who as Abigail Adams had to put up with a cantankerous John Adams in the acclaimed HBO series, is as plucky as Abigail here but far less prudish. Freed from her Colonial garb, Linney unveils a pleasing physique, parts of which occasionally protrude from her bathrobe.

She can also wag a fairly salty tongue, though for the most part this is a series about smiling in the face of death. I sense that Cathy will outlive her diagnosis, at least in TV time.

Cathy has decided against chemotherapy, figuring it will do more harm than good. She’s also refused to tell anyone about her disease, including her immature husband, who has been exiled to a friend’s house after pouring drinks on the sofa and using the front yard as a urinal.

No Bathing

Their obnoxious son could also benefit from a serious strapping. He’s such a slacker that he refuses to plunge the toilet, leaving the vile job to mom.

The show, which premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. New York time, reminds us that cancer, like war and other hardships, can bring people together. Cathy decides it’s finally time to meet neighbor Marlene (Phyllis Somerville), a reclusive widow who may be dancing with death herself.

Another regular is her brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), an eccentric activist fixated on the dangers of plastic grocery bags. He’s opposed to regular bathing and refuses to take money from his sister, but he likes her brash new attitude.

“You’re starting to get your old weird back,” he tells her approvingly.

Cathy may also get her old mojo working. Her doctor, Todd (Reid Scott), is interested in more than her cancer cells. Meantime, she offers to pay obese student Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe, from “Precious“) $100 for every pound she loses. If Andrea rises to the challenge, Cathy will go broke before she goes toes-up.

‘Living the Dream’

Sometimes the show gets a little too peppy, as when Cathy does cartwheels down a school hallway, apparently for the sheer joy of it. But the series should resonate with viewers whose lives have been touched by cancer -- which is to say just about all of us.

When Cathy finally reveals her condition to a neighbor -- one incapable of passing on the info -- she does so with a mix of bravery and sadness. Pointing out that all parents want their children to outlive them, she proclaims, “I’m living the dream.”

With dreams like that, who needs nightmares?

Rating: ***


What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Dave Shiflett at dshifl@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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