The Big C, “Summer Time” (1.02)

“I have no idea who I’m gonna be this summer.” – Cathy Jamison

I reacted with some excitement to Showtime’s new comedy after its pilot, praising the work by star Laura Linney, the writing, directing and the cast. And viewers did too, making it Showtime’s biggest premiere in 8 years.. The real test to any show with a strong pilot is that daunting second episode, when it goes from a mini-movie to the first steps of a journey. Does the second episode beckon us to follow behind Cathy Jamison as she continues to walk down the last road of her life? A review of the second episode, written by Darlene Hunt and directed by Michael Engler, after the jump…

Cathy, for the first time, is taking hold of her life and forcing those around her to conform to what she wants. Sometimes her journey takes her in routes that one might view as sympathetic, such as finally rolling her eyes and walking away from her husband’s childish behaviour and her son’s unruliness. Sometimes, however, it takes her down routes that make you uncomfortable, because her cancer has given her such tunnel vision that she takes action in forms that could just be destructive: like, for example, her unexplained clinginess to her son that he finds weird and threatening. It would be easy to become frustrated with Cathy because she’s now prone to these flights of whimsy and devil-may-care, but it’s so easy for me to understand every action she takes that I can’t find fault with any of it. I understand completely why she keeps it from her family and everyone else in her life, which makes her treatment of her son much more palateable than it seems to be for those who find her decision hard to understand.

She doesn’t want pity: she wants honesty. She wants a real life, and she knows that once she tells people it will become a Lifetime movie that she doesn’t want to star in. She’s someone who has always felt body shame for no reason and can now challenge that. She’s someone who has allowed her relationship with her son to fester into a partner act of nag-and-ignore, and allowed herself to be steamrolled by her husband who constantly expects her to mother him. Even the offputting moment where she wanders into Marlene’s house and touches her face while she sleeps, something that would be genuinely frightening to a barely-acquaintance, ties into the fact that Marlene has the chance to grow old, something that Cathy is realising that she’ll miss seeing.

I look more favourably on the dynamic between she and Andrea, too, because it becomes clear that Andrea has some very interesting ways to interpret ‘exercise’ and ‘don’t starve yourself’. I’m shocked, but ultimately unsurprised, that Andrea never seriously pursued exercise because the ‘magic diet’ idea is sold to women constantly (and never works). So Cathy’s form of motivation, which did at first lead to the troubling behaviors I predicted, might actually be a boon. It could still, of course, have unforeseen consequences for Andrea if her desire to lose weight becomes desperation, fueled by Cathy’s offer of $100 per pound lost. Gabourey Sidibe is great in the role and, despite being a ‘special guest star’, feels like a series regular, offering more regular laughs than much of the core cast. I wasn’t terribly impressed by her work in Precious, mostly because the role didn’t seem to offer much in the way of showing off beyond looking moody (and was a deep step down from the book), but she shows here that she’s definitely got chops. Sidibe makes a potentially-irritating character immensely likable, and I want to see how her relationship with Cathy develops.

The other guest star who deserves a pay raise is Reid Scott as Cathy’s dermatologist, if only for the scene in which he rates Cathy’s “rack” alone. That was the funniest moment of the series’ two episodes so far, and entirely due to Scott‘s fantastic work shifting from awkward-and-professional-doctor to young-guy-looking-at-a-great-rack, complete with bluster and hints of arousal. Between this and his scene with Cathy in the pilot, comparing how each other rated as a ‘first time’ Stage 4 diagnosis, Scott has consistently demonstrated the best chemistry with Linney, and his character always provides a great balance of heart and funny.

The only castmate whose chemistry with the leading lady rates near Scott‘s is John Benjamin Hickey as her brother Sean, which parlays well into his wonderful speech about how he’s always been attracted to her… that, of course, is a giant joke. Much like Travis’ fake coming-out in Cougar Town, you don’t know whether or not its serious, and how to feel about it, until after you’re laughing. And seeing Hickey and Sidibe share some screentime was fun; they are the series two most overtly comedic characters (in that, unlike Scott‘s awkward doctor, they try to make an impression rather than tripping into one) and it was fun seeing them bounce off one another.

While he isn’t hilarious like  the above triplicate or Oliver Platt as his childlike father, Gabriel Basso is perfect as Adam, in that he gives us an Adam who is an unrepentant little prick. This is no judgement, as most young men his ageand in his situation are exactly the same way, taking their parents for granted and convinced that they can shrug off anything their parents desire – such as demanding his mother plunge the toilet and pick up after him. His reaction to his mother cancelling his soccer camp is completely believable and sympathetic, but its tempered by moments like ditching his mother to eat at a friend’s house when she wants him to try chili with onions, or faking a home robbery, or pretending to cut his finger off. He’s self-centred and selfish, which is the only reason he hasn’t figured Cathy’s situation out; if she doesn’t tell him, he’ll have figured her diagnosis out within a few weeks… If he ever stops thinking about himself for five minutes and starts questioning why she’s saying things like “I don’t want you to look back and hate yourself”.

Of course, the star here is, and will always be, Laura Linney as Cathy; storming a school bus with a paintball gun, rolling her eyes at her husband’s chosen couples therapist and sunbathing naked, she embraces every part of Cathy’s “why not?” attitude without forgetting any of the ticks that gave the question an answer every time she asked it before. Her struggles with body shame, for example, are wonderfully drawn, as she has to see a number of convincing moments before she becomes okay, even happy, with her body.

“Summer Time” is a strong second episode that demonstrates that this is a journey, and definitely one I’ll be joining Cathy on for the remainder of her life. I hope its a good one.


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