About a year ago, I went to a funeral for a dear friend. It evolved into one of those come-up-and-say-whatever-you-like events. This can be good and bad — with some lovely, spontaneous stories, some funny remarks, and a few digressions that probably should have remained silent and theoretical. But that’s what you get at one of those open-mike events.
One of the less-distinguished offerings came from a well-meaning guy who said when he thought of our departed friend, he always thought about “the C word.” He went on rambling about her for several minutes, with the audience a bit restive and disturbed. Why? Because you don’t mention the C word in a eulogy for a woman, leaving the crowd to come up with the obvious, highly offensive choice that begins with that particular letter, for God’s sake. The guy talked on and on, finally coming to his point that C, when it came to our friend, stood for caring. Then he ambled away from the mike and the whole congregation came close to passing out after holding our collective breaths for a good 10 minutes.
All of which I mention because I’m terrible about digressing myself, but also because the new show on Showtime now named “The Big C” used to be titled “The C Word.” Then somebody got smart, but unfortunately not smart enough, and changed the name.
Anyway, if you haven’t seen it or heard about it, “The Big C” is about a woman who’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma and given a year to live. Laura Linney plays the main character — and, as usual, she’s wonderful.
During the first show, I felt intrigued by the premise of a comedy about a dread disease — which is a pretty gutsy, unusual call right off the bat. Also, Linney’s character, Cathy, chooses not to undergo treatment, which is something else you don’t find discussed very often. I found both these approaches to be fascinating and thought the show would be worth tuning into again.
Then, I read my friend Cancer Bitch’s blog. CB is smart and funny and a native Texan, and we seem to agree on most things from a dislike of peppy self-affirmations and perkiness to an admiration of Nora Ephron’s early works. However, CB took a much more hostile stand on “The Big C” than I did. At the risk of putting it too gently, I might as well say she tore the show a new one: it was shallow and deeply offensive; it made cancer upper-middle class and pretty; it implicitly blamed the victim in its theme of Cathy’s former repression; it was ludicrous when it came to her chummy relationship with her doctor.
I think that was about it. I felt disappointed after I read the blog, since I clearly hadn’t hated the show enough. As the week wore on, though, it occurred to me I still gave “The Big C” credit for trying something so in-your-face different when it came to the holy scripture of the approved cancer narrative.
And, more than anything, I liked the Big C’s capture of the moments of crazy exhilaration some people experience when they’re diagnosed with the disease. For some of us, there was at least a temporary sense of freedom from the ordinary cares and worries of our lives. Life was urgent and vivid, and the only thing you needed to fear was the lurking danger in your own body; the rest of the formerly scary world looked benign, in contrast. A great wind had swept through and scattered the insignificant pieces of life.
So, I watched The Big C again this week, trying to be open-minded. After two shows, however, I have to say the series is beginning to piss me off.
You see Cathy’s craziness, her freedom from the constraints of her normal life. But nothing else accompanies her wildness — no thoughtfulness or insights about life and death. What bothers me even more, though, is that I found being diagnosed with a possibly fatal illness made me closer to my family and friends. We had deep, intense, wide-ranging conversations. We held nothing back. We talked about how we loved each other and why. It’s remarkable what you can say when the shackles of everyday life have gotten whacked off and you know your time may be limited.
But The Big C not only doesn’t do that — it does exactly the opposite. By keeping her illness a secret, Cathy keeps her family and friends at an impossible and growing distance. She’s free, all right, but she exercises her freedom to do the shallow, meaningless, vain and unimportant, all by herself.
Except for, of course, her doctor, who’s in on the secret. And, with that relationship, I’m beginning to see Cancer Bitch’s point. Cathy flashes her body at her doctor, asks him what he thinks and he says she has a great rack? She sunbathes naked when she has melanoma, for Christ’s sake? And, clothes on or off, she treats her bumbling husband like dirt and tracks her extremely obnoxious teenage son like a stalker.
Okay, so it’s only two shows out of 13. There’s time to grow, time to deepen, time to do all kinds of worthy things. But at the rate The Big C is going, I may start skipping the show and just tune into Cancer Bitch’s denunciations of it.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)