The Big C: Comedy that dares to tackle cancer

The latest hit show from the US centres on a teacher with terminal cancer – and it's out to make us laugh, says Sarah Hughes

Is there such a thing as a subject too delicate for a TV comedy? That's the question surrounding The Big C, a new series starring Laura Linney as a suburban teacher diagnosed with inoperable cancer, which begins on More4 tomorrow.

For Linney's character, Cathy Jamison, the news that she has a stage IV malignant melanoma causes her to reassess life. No longer prepared to put up with her husband's wayward nature or her son's cheek, she finds herself determined to cut loose. "I wanna be the one to spill fruit punch," she yells at her bemused husband in the first episode before sneaking an illicit cigarette and picking a fight with her unpleasant next-door neighbour.

It's in line with what viewers have come to expect from the US cable channel Showtime, which has made a name for itself with a slew of well-written dramas centred on women behaving badly. On the surface, Linney's Cathy sits nicely alongside Edie Falco's pill-addicted Nurse Jackie, Toni Collette's multiple-personality disordered mother in United States of Tara and Mary-Louise Parker's drug-dealing suburban widow in Weeds.

They're also the sorts of roles that awards panels can't resist. Last month Linney saw off Collette, Falco, Tina Fey and Glee's Lea Michele to take home the Golden Globe for best actress and few would bet against her taking the Emmy later this year.

It's true that few actresses are as likeable as Linney, a compelling, offbeat presence in films like The Squid and the Whale and The Savages. Her Cathy, a repressed 42-year-old mother of one with an unreliable man-child for a husband, an increasingly angry teenage son and a teaching job she no longer feels any enthusiasm for, is a woman for whom the phrase "long-suffering" was invented.

Yet despite Linney's sensitive turn and the presence of a strong supporting cast, including the reliable Oliver Platt as her infantile husband and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe as a recalcitrant student, Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon as an old college friend and The Wire's Idris Elba as a painter with whom she enjoys a fling, The Big C has drawn mixed reviews in the US. Not everyone is convinced that cancer can or should be given the comedic treatment.

Writing on Heather Havrilesky dismissed the show as "kooky, unsexy cancer", The New Yorker remarked that there were "too many easy appeals to your emotions".

Not that the show's creator, Darlene Hunt, is concerned. "It's complicated material and it plays with so many emotions, so I do understand why not everyone responds," she says. "I'm glad to have poked a nerve."

That said Hunt, a fan of British sitcoms, admits that she was always aware that the subject matter might prove too strong for some. "I always pitched the show as being more like a British one than an American," she says. "British comedy is generally darker than US comedy and I wanted people to understand that's where we were coming from."

Yet while Hunt and The Big C's showrunner Jenny Bicks (herself a breast cancer survivor), have crafted a smart, offbeat show, it remains to be seen whether they can overcome the central problem at their comedy's heart. In contrast to Breaking Bad, which also features a lead character diagnosed with cancer, The Big C isn't an hour-long drama with darkly humorous moments but rather a half-hour comedy in which audiences are asked to tune in every week to watch the lead character die. Nevertheless, Showtime have renewed the show for a second series after strong ratings of 6.5 million viewers across all platforms.

Hunt remains adamant that while the material is complex, humour can and should be used to illustrate all aspects of life and, indeed, death. "I think that comedy is high art and can be used in the darkest of situations to make things less awful," she says. "Comedy provides a lifeline which is why it can be used in any situation."

'The Big C' starts on Thursday at 11pm on More4