Showtime's The Big C

The hype for Showtime's new "dramady" about cancer has started, and I was intrigued by this weekend's story in The New York Times Magazine on Laura Linney, the show's star. I have always liked her and was more curious than ever about the show. The premise of the series for those who don't know: a rather uptight high school teacher is diagnosed with metastatic melanoma and given two years to live. When I learned the first episode was available on the Web, I tuned in (You can watch it here). The hype had described the show as not about cancer, really, but about a woman going through the stages of grief as she recognizes the end of her life is near. For the regular viewing audience, this should work, but for those of us who have been there, I was reminded of my dad watching WWII movies with me in the '60s. Every time the director would interject actual footage from the war, dad would say, "real." Then we would be back to the action of the movie and he would say, "fake." You see, he had been there, and to enjoy it, he had to separate out what was real and what wasn't. Cancer survivors watching The Big Cwill also have to separate out fact from fantasy.For example, only minutes into the episode, Linney's character Kathy tells her husband that she can't argue because she has a dermatology appointment. We then see her in the exam room with a cute, young doctor who has clearly told her that she has advanced cancer. You get the idea that chemotherapy has been mentioned because Kathy talks about wanting to keep her hair. If you can suspend reality to believe she is getting this information from a dermatologist, your reaction could be like mine. "Wait, you have to get a second opinion. The guy is a dermatologist for heaven's sake, and he doesn't know that at ASCO this year there was new treatment introduced for metastatic melanoma. Call M.D. Anderson. Don't give up." Then it was over.Whew, OK, that was fast: A diagnosis in five minutes. I reminded myself that they needed to get the premise out there in a hurry so Kathy could start reacting. And react she does, ordering the swimming pool for the back yard that she always wanted and saying all the things she has wanted to say to her students but was too "nice." Nice is gone. And Kathy begins her metamorphosis alone, trying, but not succeeding, to tell her husband or brother that she is dying. Everything she does is with confrontational energy, from running across the street to tell off a nasty neighbor to doing cartwheels down the empty hall of the high school. And here was the biggest rub for me. I could swallow the reaction to start living in overdrive. We all know someone who left the oncologist's office and went directly to the car dealer to buy a red Mustang convertible off the show room floor, or the woman who turned to her husband and said, "Out. If I am going to die, I am not spending the last five years with you." But come on. Cancer is a physical disease first and an emotional disease second. I kept wanting details during the episode that would explain why she didn't have any symptoms of metastatic cancer. No apparent pain, no problems running and jumping. That became a bit of outrage in the final scenes when we are looking at her scans on a light box and there are multiple black tumors in her lungs. The reality is that living with cancer is both physical and emotional, and the process through which we learn the details of our cancer put us in shock long before we begin grieving. To watch The Big C you have to suspend reality about the physical. Something survivors probably will have trouble with. But I am guessing that, just as the WW II movies of the '60s were for entertainment more than education, so is The Big C. It makes me wonder what the HBO series will look like in 50 years when the next Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg decide to tell the real story of the men and women who lived and died in the war on cancer -- just as they did in the recent miniseries The Pacific. I don't know if my dad could have stood the reality of The Pacific had he lived long enough to see it, but it certainly helped me understand the man I grew up with who left his soul somewhere in those tiny islands so many years ago.