Laura Linney

With a mischievous smile, Laura Linney is gleefully ruining a take. During a tense scene between her character, Cathy Jamison, who has Stage 4 melanoma, and her bipolar brother, Sean, played by John Benjamin Hickey, she makes her costar break down in giggles.

Whoever says cancer is no laughing matter hasn't seen The Big C, Showtime's irreverent comedy about a Minneapolis teacher, wife and mom who's trying not only to beat death but to live as fully as possible in whatever time she has left. The smartly written, beautifully cast show has earned a devoted fan base and critical plaudits, and three-time Emmy winner Linney has already snared a Golden Globe for her deft portrayal of the strong-willed Cathy.

The oft-repeated mantra at The Big C is "It's not a show about dying; it's a show about living." And for sure, Cathy lives large. In the first season she kept her illness a secret, booted her immature husband, Paul (Oliver Platt), and had an affair. "Cathy doesn't behave in a safe, by-the-numbers fashion," says Hickey, during a break on the set in Stamford, Connecticut. "A lot of people who are living with cancer love the funny, outrageous, sometimes controversial way that character deals." Executive producer Jenny Bicks, a survivor herself, says, "The writers take the kid gloves off when we talk about cancer, because when you've gone through it, it's not all tragic and dramatic. It can also be super strange and funny."

Season 2 has moved the story forward from summer to fall (each season covers three months of Cathy's life). "We may get a little darker this season, but we're not going to stray too far from our comedic roots," Bicks promises. Modeling Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' famous five stages of grief, Cathy has progressed from denial to anger and she's fighting for her life with a vengeance. With true — bordering on obnoxious — grit, she pushes her way into a clinical trial run by brusque doc Atticus Sherman, played by Alan Alda. "I love Alan Alda," says Linney, who, as a producer, has a hand in casting. "I've wanted to work with him for years."

In the trial, Cathy bonds with Lee (Hugh Dancy), whom Bicks describes as "a laid-back Buddhist — her [melanoma] mole mate/soul mate." The relationship doesn't please her husband. And while the Jamison marriage is back on track, "don't expect Paul to grow up instantly," says Platt. "That would be boring. He's still the guy who doesn't think things through and puts himself in situations he shouldn't." Coming up: Financial troubles and large medical bills lead to some ill-advised illicit activities.

While Cathy is all about a cure, her mentally ill brother believes his meds are too numbing. But besotted by the baby his girlfriend Rebecca (Cynthia Nixon) is carrying, he agrees to do the responsible thing. "Sean and Rebecca try to make a go of it as a couple," says Bicks. "They're oddly suited in a sweet way."

In a bit of small-worldism, Hickey played the first man who slept with Nixon's character, Miranda, on Sex and the City. "We're old bed buddies," jokes the actor, who just won a Tony for The Normal Heart. Bicks, a producer on Sex, asked Nixon to play Rebecca, a role the actress is clearly relishing. "She's different from what I've done," Nixon says, "a rootless party girl who in some ways is totally lost. She's also an incredibly selfish handful who pushes all of Cathy's buttons."

Cathy's life takes yet another turn when her student Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) moves in after her parents leave town. The free-spirited teen gets her first boyfriend, Myk (Boyd Holbrook), who works with Paul at his new job as a big-box-store salesman. "He's my first love interest on screen," Sidibe reveals. "Boyd is very sexy and I was so nervous when we had to kiss."

Although Linney wasn't in the market for a TV series when Showtime offered her the project, it was an immediate match. "I've been obsessing about the limited time allotted to a human being and what we do with that time," she says. "I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to explore these topics, especially in the context of comedy. To me, comedy is a way to cope with reality."

Is Cathy, with all her comic missteps, a hero? "Anyone who battles cancer is heroic," Linney says. "But she's not unique — she's one of millions of people. Hopefully, she will make people ask themselves — 'How would I behave? What would I do in that place?' That's good enough."

The Big C airs Mondays at 10:30/9:30c on Showtime.

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