Deconstructing ‘The Big C’

I’m not a fan of movies or TV shows about cancer. Real-life experience was quite enough for me, thankyouverymuch. In any case, the reality is often far removed from the entertainment world’s concept of what the cancer experience should look like.

So I’ve never watched “The Big C,” the Showtime comedy/drama that chronicles the life and times of Cathy Jamison, a fictional Minneapolis teacher who learns she has late-stage melanoma. (“The Big C,” which is in its second season, airs on Showtime at 9:30 p.m. Mondays.)

Darlene Hunt, the show’s creator and executive producer, has taken the creative path less traveled for this TV series.  For one thing, the main character has melanoma. It’s a departure from the standard television fare of breast-cancer stories and a long-overdue recognition of a cancer that tends to receive less attention. Its edgy approach also makes “The Big C” very unlike many of the treacle-laden dramas in which cancer has an unwelcome starring role.

If this piques your interest, there will be a chance today to hear from the executive producer herself about her inspiration for creating the show and its cast of characters. Hunt will be the guest on Frankly Speaking About Cancer, an Internet radio show of the Cancer Support Community. It airs at 3 p.m. CDT today; if you miss it, you can access it later via the archive.

Critics have given high marks to “The Big C.” But I’m far more interested in the reactions from people who’ve had firsthand experience with cancer. “Cheerleader-level annoying” is how Mary Elizabeth Williams, herself a melanoma survivor, recently described Cathy’s character.

The show seems to accurately capture many of the smaller moments, such as the pitying expressions that family, friends and acquaintances often don around someone with cancer, Williams wrote. “But convincingly, wittily depicting the terrible ordinariness of it? That’s so much harder to get right.”

Dr. Elaine Schattner, an oncologist and breast cancer survivor who blogs at Medical Lessons, has been following “The Big C” and blogging about many of the episodes. Are the details accurate from a medical standpoint? Well, for one thing, the show’s first episode wasn’t clear about the doctor’s role, Dr. Schattner writes. “His white coat is too short, in the style of a medical student’s. He uses few polysyllabic words. He looks both well-rested and neat. In one strange scene, the patient and doctor meet for lunch at a pleasant outdoor restaurant. That’s not how oncology’s practiced, at least how I know it.”

Dr. Schattner also points out that many of the medical and scientific details are either glossed over or left out.

On the WebMD forums, reactions to the show when it made its debut last year were mixed. A couple of people said it was one of their favorite shows but someone else called it “insultingly unrealistic.”

“People who are sick do not have the energy to drive around in fancy cars and have hot sex with people they barely know,” she wrote. “They need to stay home and be sick, which is why it’s so sad.”

In online discussions elsewhere, the show’s dark humor resonated with some commenters but was a turn-off to others.

There in fact doesn’t seem to be any particular script for how people handle cancer (or other diseases) in real life. Some are angry; some are resigned. Some cope with humor and laughter. Some withdraw; some go off the deep end; many are scared and confused. Some use their illness as an opportunity to set life’s reset button, others find peace in the path they’ve already chosen.

I’m not sure Cathy should be expected to be the poster girl for How To Do Cancer Right. Perhaps one of the benefits of shows like “The Big C” is that they can get people thinking and talking about what’s fiction, what’s real, what’s emotionally honest and what isn’t.

If you’ve ever watched “The Big C,” what did you think of the show? Did it change some of your views about what it’s like to have cancer?

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