The Big C is a show that really does defy convention. Each episode is only half an hour long so I automatically tagged it as a comedy, and while it certainly has a good number of laughs in it, there was always far more going on than your average sitcom. A good sitcom will have a layer of humour over a layer of realistic life stuff, usually something work or relationship based. The Big C does that layer of humour and the day to day life layer, but then underneath that is a foundation of terminal cancer. It’s no easy thing to make all three of those levels work and interact, never losing sight of either the humour or the seriousness, but The Big C manages it admirably.
Season 1 was about Cathy herself dealing with her diagnosis, no one else knew and she focussed on trying to cram as much life as possible into her remaining time. But in season 2 everyone knows about her cancer and reacts in a different way, Cathy’s forced to deal with all those reactions rather than just focussing on herself. That in itself makes season 2 a lot less fun than the 1st, Cathy can no longer act selfishly, saying and doing absolutely anything she wants to do.
In my season 1 review I said “The show isn’t about death, it’s about life. It sounds very trite, but it is really, really true. Cathy has accepted her diagnosis and taken it as a kick in the arse to her seemingly unremarkable life”. This season however really is more about death, and the practicalities like how to pay for treatment and discrimination at work. To be honest, it’s vastly more depressing than the first season. There’s still plenty of humour from the dialogue and performances, but somehow the topic of fighting cancer and living day-to-day life is more depressing than just accepting a terminal diagnosis.
This refocusing somewhat unbalances the show. When it was more clearly a comedy it was easy to overlook the unrealistic elements such as the fact that all the characters around Cathy are ridiculously over-the-top caricatures, albeit very well acted ones, but the most useless bunch of people you’d ever meet. More frustrating is that Cathy’s cancer is one of those magic TV diseases that while extremely serious has no notable symptoms beyond those that can occasionally drive a plot. The prime example of that being the occasional hallucinations of dead people, a tried and tested cheat that is only forgiveable here because of the absolutely sublime way it plays out in the final episode of the season.
I saved the series up and watched the thirteen episodes over just a couple of weeks. By the end of the season I felt rather like I’d been hit by a truck. The last few episodes are intense and actually pretty devastating. They are also superbly put together and absolutely brilliant television. The fact that it’s difficult to understand whether it’s a comedy or a drama, that it bounces between surreal and brutal realism, actually is a positive. It’s a show that defies convention or label and that in itself makes it fascinating.