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TELEVISION REVIEW

Linney earns ‘The Big C’ a big A

In “The Big C,’’ Laura Linney portrays a teacher with terminal cancer. John Benjamin Hickey (below left, with Linney) plays her homeless brother and Gabourey Sidibe a cynical student. In “The Big C,’’ Laura Linney portrays a teacher with terminal cancer. John Benjamin Hickey (below left, with Linney) plays her homeless brother and Gabourey Sidibe a cynical student. (Ken Regan/Showtime (Above And Below Left); Jordin Althaus/Showtime)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / August 16, 2010

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Unless you’ve been through it, you don’t know exactly how you’d behave if told you had only months to live. Would you be heroic, cowardly, self-obsessed, depressed, an anxious whirl of denial, a fountain of gallows humor, a saint? All of the above? Would you pull a Walter White from “Breaking Bad’’ and become a drug kingpin with no moral center?

Showtime’s “The Big C’’ is a blackly comic portrait of one woman’s choices upon learning she has stage IV melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. Minneapolis schoolteacher Cathy Jamison, played by Laura Linney, is breaking good, as she sheds her lifelong mousiness and roars. And she’s breaking bad, as she keeps her diagnosis secret, refuses treatment, and dumps her husband, Paul (Oliver Platt). You might break differently, and you will probably want to judge Cathy’s behavior; but she’s breaking the only way she can, caught in a cyclone of new feelings that range from fear to euphoria — all of which Linney portrays with breathtaking spirit. Laura Linney, America’s everywoman with a vengeance.

Linney and this role were made for each other. There are a few problems with “The Big C,’’ which premieres tonight at 10:30. Occasionally, the tone veers off course into forced comic absurdity, such as when Cathy’s young doctor tells her, “You have an awesome rack.’’ The character of Cathy’s brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), is a TV-ized version of a homeless man — he’s more of an irritating performance artist than a street person. But my cavils are irrelevant in the face of Linney’s extraordinary work. She brilliantly creates a woman who’s liberated by the knowledge of death, who finds her new deadline extremely motivating — a sort of Post-it note on her mirror reminding her, “Live!’’ Her Cathy embraces her fate as passionately as most of us fight ours.

When “The Big C’’ begins, Cathy has already received her diagnosis and begun to emerge from her rut. The premiere has an “in medias res’’ feel to it, which means, fortunately, we are spared the familiar drama of the Big Revelation Scene With Tears. Linney, with a few halting pauses, effortlessly lets us understand just how pent-up Cathy was before she got the bad news. We can tell she was little more than a baby sitter for her grown-up frat-boy husband, now that she refuses to mother him and kicks him out of the house. Now, she also buys a swimming pool, does cartwheels down the school hallway, and hangs out with her brother, who haunts local mall garbage dumpsters. She eats dessert for dinner, and, in a loud, symbolic rejection of suburban stasis, she sets her couch on fire.

There’s not much of the maudlin or the self-pitying in Linney’s portrayal, which may confound viewers hoping for some kind of catharsis. During the first three episodes I previewed, Cathy doesn’t ever fall apart. And yet Linney’s performance is nonetheless moving, precisely because she is not trying to milk tears. We see a person too feverishly taking control of her life because her life is so out of control. She has a lot of fight in her — the title refers to her first name as much as it does to cancer. When Cathy runs screaming from a touchy-feely support group for people with cancer, you know she’s not nearly ready to even begin to remove her armor.

Among the changes in her life, Cathy starts to rule her obnoxious teen son (Gabriel Basso) with an iron fist to save him from becoming his father. She rethinks her teaching methods, bringing a cynical, overweight student (Gabourey Sidibe) into her life, to push her toward something positive. Cutting through caution and political correctness, Cathy tells her, “You can’t be fat and mean.’’ And Cathy makes contact with her cranky shut-in of a neighbor (Phyllis Somerville) to jolt her out of her stupor. Rather than saying a long goodbye, Cathy is giving those around her one long wake-up call.

“The Big C’’ is classified as a comedy, because the episodes are a half-hour long and the script contains plenty of comic bite. But the series is fully dramatic, too, given the dire theme. The tone is in keeping with Showtime’s other portraits of women in extremis, most notably “Nurse Jackie,’’ in which Edie Falco plays a pill addict. There are laughs, but they are surrounded by grim circumstances, persistent pathos, and awesome lead performances.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

THE BIG C Starring: Laura Linney, Oliver Platt, Gabourey Sidibe, John Benjamin Hickey, Phyllis Somerville, Gabriel Basso

On: Showtime

Time: Tonight, 10:30-11