The Big C is a Showtime original television series which premiered on August 16, 2010. It drew the largest audience for a Showtime original series premiere. The second season premiered on June 27, 2011. The third season premiered on April 8, 2012. On July 31, 2012, The Big C was renewed for a fourth and final season, named "Hereafter", which premiered on Monday, April 29, 2013 and concluded on May 20, 2013.
The show follows Minneapolis high school teacher Cathy Jamison – a reserved, suburban wife and mother – who is diagnosed with melanoma. The realization of this forces her to really begin to live for the first time in her adult life. At first she chooses to keep her diagnosis from her family, behaving in ways they find puzzling and increasingly bizarre. She finds new freedom to express herself. As the show progresses, Cathy allows her family and some new friends to support her as she copes with her terminal diagnosis, and finds both humor and pathos in the many idiosyncratic relationships in her life.
Cast and characters
Laura Linney as Cathy Jamison. Cathy is a high school teacher who, at the start of the series, has been recently diagnosed with terminal (stage IV) melanoma. Reluctant to burden her family and friends with the news, she keeps it a secret for months. She does reveal her illness to elderly neighbor Marlene (who later commits suicide), after Marlene figures it out since her dog, Thomas, who had been hanging around Cathy a lot, can sniff out cancer. Her behavior dramatically changes as she begins to make reckless choices in the face of oncoming death. These include kicking her husband out of the house, spending money on an expensive car, and having an affair. She befriends Andrea, a mouthy student in her summer English class. Desperate to make sure her teenage son is on the right path before she dies, she unintentionally drives a rift between them. She ends her affair when it is exposed, and allows her husband to move back in after finally revealing to him that she is sick. She gives Marlene's house, which Marlene left to Cathy in her will, to her brother Sean. She decides to undergo a treatment with great risks because she wants to live.
Oliver Platt as Paul Jamison, Cathy's husband. Paul has a somewhat childlike approach to life, and Cathy kicks him out of the house because she is fed up of looking after him. He doesn't really understand the situation but appeases her in the hopes that their marriage can be repaired. While separated, he has a sexual encounter with another woman; this is ultimately forgiven in the face of Cathy's affair. After Cathy reveals her cancer to him, he moves back in and becomes overly attentive and doting. At the end of the second season finale episode, Paul appears to Cathy as a hallucination at the end of the marathon she runs and then a cut scene shows him being worked on by an EMS team after ingesting cocaine earlier in the day. Platt had previously co-starred with Laura Linney in the film Kinsey.
John Benjamin Hickey as Sean Tolkey, Cathy's brother. Sean is an eccentric, homeless, anti-establishment environmentalist. He is frequently dirty and eats out of garbage cans. Though having a somewhat distant relationship, Cathy begins making a concerned effort to get closer to him after she is diagnosed with cancer. He starts a relationship with Cathy's college friend Rebecca, which ends badly. At one point Cathy reveals her illness to him and he has an emotional breakdown; she reneges, claiming she made it up to get a reaction. In the season one finale, Rebecca reveals to Sean that she is pregnant. At the beginning of season two, Sean and Rebecca have moved into Marlene's house. It's revealed that Sean suffers from bipolar disorder but has refused to treat it in the past. He begins taking medications in order to become more stable for his unborn child, but then goes off the medications when Rebecca miscarries. After Rebecca leaves Sean, he has an emotional downward spiral that causes him to lash out against Cathy and other family members. He comes home at the end of second season and tells Cathy that he was working for a traveling circus. In the third season, Sean gets a job as a janitor at Adam's school. After finally getting a landline, he starts receiving calls for "Willy Wanker", discovering that the last person who had the phone number was a gay phone sex operator. Sean starts his own phone sex operation as a way to make extra money, and ends up connecting with a client named Tim. He then starts a relationship with him and his wife Giselle, but they break it off when Sean's presence begins to negatively affect their marriage.
Gabriel Basso as Adam Jamison, Cathy and Paul's son, who attends the same school where Cathy teaches. A typical teenager, he resists his mother's sudden increase in attention and affection. He strikes an unsteady friendship with schoolmate Andrea, but it falls apart after he balks when it is insinuated by others that they are sexually intimate. After getting in trouble, he is punished by being forced to do house chores for Marlene. He is the first to realize Marlene has Alzheimer's disease. In season one episode "Everything that Rises Must Converge", Marlene, not recognizing Adam, pulls a gun on him and chases him out of her home. Adam does not know about his mother's cancer until the season one finale. While his mother is in the hospital receiving treatment, he discovers a key to a storage locker that is filled with hundreds of gifts for his future birthdays, holidays and major life events. He realizes his mother is not going to live very long and finally reacts emotionally. At the beginning of season two, Adam feels frustrated with all the attention he's been getting at school due to Cathy's illness. He wants to pursue a sexual relationship with his girlfriend Mia, who he started dating at the end of season one, but she wants to take things slow. He then sleeps with classmate Emily, but refuses to take any responsibility for his actions. While his parents are away, Adam has sex with a hooker / dominatrix in their bedroom, and then has Uncle Sean help get rid of her. In the episode "The Little C", it is revealed that Adam contracted crabs from his encounter with the hooker, and accidentally exposed Cathy and Paul. He confesses this to them, and Cathy tells Mia thinking Adam got it from her. Mia promptly dumps him, and refuses to give him any sympathy due to his mother's illness. He then begins chatting with a girl named Poppy through an online cancer support group. When they finally meet, Adam discovers that Poppy is actually a thirty-something year old woman. Despite this, they bond over their immature sense of humor and their parents' diseases. Before the family is supposed to go to Italy for Christmas, Adam discovers that Poppy's father has actually been dead for several years. He confronts Poppy, but she explains that once he loses his mom, he will feel like a part of him is missing. In the third season, Adam has joined a prayer group at school, where he meets the extremely religious Jesse, who becomes his girlfriend.
Gabourey Sidibe as Andrea Jackson (Season 3-4, recurring previously), a mouthy and combative student in Cathy's class. Cathy takes an interest in her and offers her a cash reward for losing weight. She is the first person to realize Cathy is having an affair. She lies to Cathy about her upbringing and economic status, claiming her mother is a drug addict and they live in poverty. Cathy visits their home to discover she lives in a lovely upper middle class home with two educated, caring parents. In the second season, Andrea comes to live with Cathy and her family due to her parents moving away to Africa for missionary work. She starts dating Paul's co-worker Myk, and gets engaged to him, but then Paul reveals that Myk is in the country illegally, and might be only marrying her for a green card. Heartbroken, Andrea spends her winter break in Africa and connects with her heritage, after which she renames herself Ababu.
Phyllis Somerville as Marlene (Season 1, recurring afterward), Cathy's elderly neighbor and friend. Somewhat crotchety, Marlene lost her husband to cancer many years earlier. She has two daughters, from whom she is estranged. Although she finds Cathy annoying at first, the two quickly become friends, eventually becoming close to the whole family. Marlene is the first person to know Cathy's secret. She figures it out after her dog keeps stalking Cathy, because dogs can supposedly "smell" cancer. Marlene starts to exhibit episodes of memory loss, often suddenly forgetting where she is and who people are. She finally admits to Cathy that she has Alzheimer's. She pulls a gun on Adam, not recognizing who he is, and her horror of what she might do as she continues to deteriorate makes her decide to kill herself. At the beginning of the second season, she appears to Cathy during hallucinations.
Reid Scott as Dr. Todd Mauer (Seasons 1 and 2), Cathy's oncologist and friend. Compassionate and concerned, he goes beyond the doctor/patient relationship by going on several personal outings with Cathy. He begins to become her confidante as she tells him all of the secrets she cannot tell her family. He allows her to accompany him while house shopping for him and his girlfriend. He reluctantly accompanies Cathy to Canada for an alternative therapy treatment, and while there reveals that he is "confused" and has feelings for her.
Cynthia Nixon as Rebecca (Seasons 1 and 2), Cathy's college roommate and long-time friend. She resurfaces at Cathy's birthday party after a long absence. When she begins a sexual relationship with Sean, Cathy reveals that she has always found Rebecca to be selfish and a bad friend, which serves as a wake-up call and leads to the end of the romance. She becomes pregnant with Sean's child. This news leads to him telling her that he wants to raise the child together. She later moves in with Sean and they fall in love, becoming engaged; however, when Rebecca miscarries their child, Sean goes off his medication, giving Rebecca no choice but to leave him.
Nadia Dajani as Tina (Season 1), who went to high school with Cathy and Paul and was then known as "Rugby Slut". Always attending the local rugby games, and not saying die to her youth, she starts an affair with Paul (Paulie) after Cathy kicks him out. Cathy discovers their affair when she comes to offer Paul an olive branch and sees Tina leaving with her thong.
Idris Elba as Lenny (Season 1), a painter at Cathy's school. They have a brief affair but Cathy ends it as she re-examines her feelings for Paul.
Alexandra Socha as Mia (Seasons 1 and 2), Adam's classmate and first serious girlfriend. She and Adam break up after she discovers that Adam had sex with someone else. She finds out about Adam's indiscretion when Cathy confronts her after he brings pubic lice aka crabs into the house, Cathy believing Adam having gotten them from having sex with Mia. She eventually forgives him leading to them getting back together for a short time.
Alan Alda as Dr. Atticus Sherman (Season 2), an oncologist leading a clinical trial. Cathy is first enthralled by the notion of Dr. Sherman and his work as possibly saving her life, but she changes her mind about him after he initially refuses her entry into the trial and she sees that his bedside manner is clinical rather than humanistic. Dr. Sherman eventually does admit Cathy into the trial, which initially does show promising results, but which ultimately does not cure Cathy.
Hugh Dancy as Lee Fallon (Season 2), a fellow patient in Dr. Sherman's clinical trial. Cathy thinks Lee is inappropriately interested in her until he comes out as gay to her. She and Lee find comfort in each other due to their cancer, and become "clinical trial" buddies. Lee's acupuncturist believes they are soul mates, as Cathy's excessively high blood pressure immediately drops once Lee enters the room. However, their relationship becomes strained when the treatment begins to work for Cathy and not Lee. As she encourages him to fight, he refuses. Ultimately Lee dies from his cancer, leaving Cathy devastated. She does however believe that the greatest gift he gave her was asking her to be there when he died, and she seeing that he died in peace.
Parker Posey as Poppy Kowalski (Season 2), who Adam meets in a children of cancer victims online support group. In Poppy's online persona, Adam believes her to be the same age as him, but upon their eventual face-to-face meeting, he finds out that she is in her thirties. Adam later finds out that Poppy had been lying in that her cancer-stricken father is no longer alive, he having died several years earlier, leading to him believing that she suffers from mental issues.
Emily Kinney as Emily (Season 2), a classmate of Adam's who is his first sexual partner after his girlfriend at the time, Mia, tells him that she isn't yet ready to have sex.
Boyd Holbrook as Mykail (Season 2), Paul's Ukrainian immigrant co-worker at the electronics store. Paul finds out that Mykail is stealing and selling merchandise from the store on the sly, the scheme which Paul enters into briefly with him. Mykail enters into a relationship with Andrea, the two who eventually get engaged. Just before their wedding, Andrea learns that Mykail was only marrying her to get his green card. As such, she dumps him. He ends up disappearing as the police are after him.
Susan Sarandon as Joy Kleinman (Season 3), a motivational speaker. She once had cancer that went into remission. She attributes her full recovery to the joy that reentered her life (hence the reason she uses the stage name Joy), "joy" which is what she espouses in her events. Despite Cathy being the one initially to suggest she and Paul go to one of Joy's weekend-long workshops, Cathy ends up believing Joy to be a bitch. Joy, however, ends up being Paul's mentor as she encourages him about his blog, which turns into Paul being Joy's "opening act". Cathy's reaction to Joy is in large part because she knows that Joy propositioned Paul. After Joy dies from being hit by a bus, Paul takes over her speaking engagement in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Hamish Linklater and Mamie Gummer as Dave and Maxine Cooper (Season 3), a relatively poor married couple who are putting their yet unborn baby up for private adoption. After reading on Paul's blog that Cathy wants to adopt, Dave and Maxine first consider them and then second choose them as the adoptive parents. Cathy's joy about this news is short-lived when she, while going to visit them at their motel and seeing them secretly through their motel room window, finds out that Maxine is not really pregnant and this adoption is all a scam to extort money. Cathy exacts revenge by taking Dave and Maxine on a ride in her sports car along an isolated country road on a cold winter day - the car which she was really intending on giving to them until she found out about the scam - when she deserts them there at gunpoint while taking most of their clothes.
Kailie Torres as Jesse (Season 3), a member of Adam's bible group, she who eventually becomes Adam's girlfriend. Adam and Jesse have anal sex in the mistaken belief that it is not really sex, as she is saving what she considers real sex (vaginal sex) until after marriage.
Lee Tergesen and Fredi Walker-Browne as Kirby and Shay (Season 3), a bartender and server respectively at the bar Cathy frequents near the hospital. Cathy has told them that her name is "Alexis", a widowed flight attendant who is in the process of getting her commercial pilot's license. Regardless, Cathy sees them as her friends, albeit ones she cannot tell anyone about outside of this circle.
Brian d'Arcy James and Tammy Blanchard as Tim and Giselle (Season 3), a married couple. Tim is one of Sean's clients of his Willy Wanker gay phone sex service. Sean and Tim agree to meet after Sean breaks from his Willy Wanker persona during one of Tim's calls. Sean initially discovers that Tim is gay-curious, and married to Giselle. Despite Sean not identifying himself as either gay or bisexual, he enters into a relationship with Tim and Giselle together (what they refer to as a "thruple"), where each treats the other two as equally as possible. That relationship is short-lived as Tim and Giselle soon discover that they need to focus on themselves as a couple.
The Big C's pilot episode was received positively by critics, while subsequent episodes received mixed reviews. Season One received an overall score of 66 on Metacritic. Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times wrote: "The Big C works because most of the writing is strong and believable, and so is Ms. Linney, who rarely sounds a false note and here has perfect pitch... the series is at its best when sardonic and subdued."Washington Post critic Hank Stuever said: "Buoyed by scalpel-sharp writing and even keener performances, The Big C …walks a fine line of having it both ways. It's for people who are repelled by the warm-fuzzy, disease-o'-the-week dramas of cable television," while EW.com's Ken Tucker quibbled with its major plot point: "My big problem with The Big C concerns a crucial decision the show made for the early episodes: Cathy declines to tell those closest to her that she has cancer. While this is one of the many different reactions people have to such a diagnosis in real life, in a comedy-drama like this, it makes everyone around her seem a bit dim."
The second season received similar reviews to the first, receiving a score of 64 on Metacritic. Maureen Ryan of AOL TV stated that "Having a character and her family deal with a potentially fatal illness is such a rich arena for both drama and black comedy, but so far, The Big C hasn't been able to mine that topic with consistent freshness and depth." Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly was critical towards the show, but commended the acting, stating that "Much of The Big C's unoriginal dramatization of cancer concerns is mitigated by the fresh, dynamic performances of Laura Linney and Oliver Platt."
The third season received a score of 67 on Metacritic.
The fourth and final season—consisting of four hour-long episodes—received a score of 73 on Metacritic and a user-rating of 8.5.