Unconventional approach may not work for Showtime's 'The Big C'

It's pretty clear from the outset that Showtime's cancer comedy-drama The Big C doesn't intend to be a reach-for-the-tissue series about a dying woman.

The series begins with Cathy (Laura Linney), a schoolteacher who has Stage IV melanoma, negotiating with a pool guy to put a pool in her back yard because, well, she wants one, even if the yard is too small (she settles for a hot tub). Moments later, we meet Cathy's husband (Oliver Platt), an immature dude she kicked out of the house because she already has one real teenage boy (Gabriel Basso), whose adolescent behavior includes playing some pretty sick practical jokes.

For Cathy, the terminal diagnosis is a form of liberation, giving her an excuse to do the things she wants to do and say things she wants to say -- except when it comes to telling anyone around her that she has cancer. The one person she talks to freely about her disease is her baby-faced dermatologist (My Boys' Reid Scott), although by the third episode, she has let her secret slip to people outside her family. The men in her orbit, who also include her homeless-by-choice activist brother (John Benjamin Hickey), barely seem to handle anything that happens outside their own heads, so it's understandable why Cathy is reluctant to give them the news.

The Big C is a perfect vehicle for Linney, who manages to be simultaneously tough and brittle, courageous and vulnerable. She has made a career out of performances that seldom have to rely on gimmicks or accents, and she makes Cathy's gallows-humored sarcasm sexy even while she's noting how men don't look at her the way they used to.

Like all of Showtime's comedy-dramas, the series leans heavier on drama, getting its comedy from acid-edged dialogue spoken by characters put in untenable situations. But creator/executive producer Darlene Hunt (who is also an actress and stand-up comedian) leans a little too heavily on quirkiness; aside from Cathy's dermatologist, everyone around her has a heavy touch of weirdness or abrasiveness, whether it's a student with a weight problem (Precious' Gabourey Sidibe) or a cranky neighbor (Phyllis Somerville). Even quirk-heavy Showtime series such as Nurse Jackie and The United States of Tara have characters with a more fully developed sense of normalcy to provide some balance to the eccentrics.

Showtime sent three episodes for review, and by the third, Platt's estranged-husband character shows some moments where he's more charming than annoying, but not all the series' problems have been worked out yet. They're relatively minor, but they can keep a good series from greatness. The Wire's Idris Elba will show up later in the season as a love interest for Cathy; perhaps he will provide the grounding that the series needs.

Meanwhile, on 'Weeds'

Speaking of quirk-heavy series, The Big C's premiere follows the sixth-season premiere of Weeds, a show that long ago dispensed with balance and logic. The most comical of Showtime's comedy-dramas begins with drug-dealing mom Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) and her family once again on the run, after her younger son Shane (Alexander Gould) used a lethal croquet-mallet blow on a powerful woman who was threatening his mother. The usual wackiness ensues, with Nancy's trouble-attracting brother (Justin Kirk) still mixed up with her unconventional gynecologist (Alanis Morissette). Showtime sent only one episode for review, and it's heavy on exposition that sets up this season. But more than five seasons in, the series' shenanigans are starting to wear thin.

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872