It’s always nice when a new work of fiction includes a whole outline of its premise right in the first episode, and even better when that little précis makes you want to keep watching rather than making you feel bored. Take it away, Laura Linney’s character from The Big C:
I could do chemo, but I’d just be buying more time, and it’d mean a lot of people taking care of me. It’s just not my thing. You know what makes me feel better though, if I’m being honest? It makes me feel better to think that we’re all dying. All of us. And when you have a kid, you expect that you’ll die before they do. Even though you try not to think about it, at least, you hope to god you do. So if I think about it that way, hey! I’m living the dream! I’m here all year! Performing at Stage 4! Oh, come on. Come on, you’ve gotta give it up for me a little bit. It’s kinda funny – death comedy. I’m warning you that this laughter might turn into tears in a second. Yep, there it goes.
On the page as well as on screen, this reads as much like a theatrical monologue as anything I’ve seen on television, and the impression is enhanced by the empty-stage-like darkened background, the metafictional content that gives it the sense of a soliloquy, and the fact that Linney is addressing all of this to a neighbor’s dog. Really, what better representative could there be for a stage audience than a dog – he’s a participant in tone, emotion, and a supplier of large watching eyes, but also a necessarily mute body.
Aside from its overt staginess, the kernel here is obviously the concept of a “death comedy,” and that already omnipresent and unstable tragedy/comedy mask. You couldn’t do a show like this without a truly impressive lead actress, and Laura Linney is certainly up to the task. This soliloquy is the strongest part of The Big C’s pilot, and it’s because she sells that stupid pun about performing at “Stage 4” as convincingly as a pun about end-stage cancer should be played. I love a good, punny, achingly awful death, and vastly prefer it to the beatification process inherent in rosier portrayals like Tuesdays with Morrie or Stepmom (*sniff* oh Susan Sarandon!). My favorite death scene in Romeo and Juliet was always Mercutio, with that classic line, “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” There’s just something about a pun that’s so appropriate for death scenes; it’s a humor with all of the effort and none of the joy, a joke that seems to admit its insufficiency even in the moment of execution.
This scene also functions as a comprehensive warning for the show’s intentions, which are clearly laid out as being potentially offensive to those who find death startlingly unfunny, and probably depressing for those who prefer their comedy unsullied by reminders of mortality. If this soliloquy is where The Big C will be for its tenure, then I am certainly on board, but I worry about everything outside of this darkened stage space. The main character’s host of incompetent, childish companions – her clueless husband, her antisocial brother, her rude son, her rude student, her rude neighbor – threaten to pull this sad, funny, delicate act out of tune, and drag the conceit toward an out and out tearjerker, or worse, rosiness. For now, while there’s still space for wry puns and simple anger at the world, it’s lovely.