Laura Linney: Getting her weird back

Laura Linney is one of America’s greatest actresses. Showtime produces some of the best programming on television. So it stands to reason that “The Big C,” with its decidedly non-tragic take on cancer, would be one of the most provocative series of the new season.

I was ready to love this show. And it’s growing on me, although I can’t call it an instant personal favorite, the way “Nurse Jackie” was, for instance. Some of the characters aren’t quite three-dimensional enough. The story arc of the episodes I’ve seen so far is  both surprising and predictable by turns, but Linney gets every last drop of juice out her role. Let’s just say that I’m waiting to be convinced. But there’s one thing that really sticks in my craw.

Linney’s character, Cathy, is a high school teacher. She’s been eager to please and self-effacing for most of her life, but her diagnosis of cancer pushes her to “get [her] weird back.” As part of this “re-weirding,” she takes it upon herself to help one of her students to fit in and to be happier. Andrea, played by Gabourey Sidibe, is a great foil for Cathy; she’s funny, angry, and smart. She’s also — and if you know who Sidibe is, this is no surprise — fat. Cathy decides that Andrea needs to lose weight, hissing at her, “You’re either a skinny bitch or fat and jolly. You can’t be fat and mean.”

This is where I waver a little in my willingness to be convinced by “The Big C.” Even though Sidibe’s made it clear in interviews that she’s in on the joke, it is disappointing that for this series’ creative team, “happy = not fat.” It feels like a cheap shot, like the easy way out. Yes, one gets the idea that Cathy’s got her work cut out for her, and that while Andrea is more than aware of how the world sees her, she’s going to do what she wants to do.  But oh, couldn’t the writing have gone another way?

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