The Big C

Who's up for a death comedy jam? Don't everybody raise their hands at once.

Leave it to an adventurous network like Showtime to develop a series that confronts the age-old maxim about how "dying is easy but comedy is hard." That's certainly the case with The Big C, an affecting yet uneven tragicomedy that comes to life whenever its heroine confronts her mortality but tends to die any time the story line goes overboard on the wackiness.

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There's never a false moment, though, with Laura Linney, joining a lineup of astonishing actresses on Showtime (Nurse Jackie's Edie Falco, United States of Tara's Toni Collette and Mary-Louise Parker of Weeds, which returns tonight) who run an emotional gamut in richly rewarding, challenging roles. As Cathy Jamison, a Minneapolis teacher and self-denying wife/mother who has always played it safe and cautious—until the wake-up call of her Stage 4 melanoma diagnosis—Linney is a luminous marvel.

Raw and vulnerable as she nervously jokes with her handsome young doctor, Cathy shows a pricklier and defiantly unpredictable side to her nearest and not-always-dearest, whom she insists on keeping in the dark about her condition. "I want to be the one to spill the fruit punch," she tells her infantile estranged husband (Oliver Platt in his latest thankless role).

Her newfound and unfiltered joie de vivre confounds, confuses and frustrates her tiresome family, which includes a spoiled son whose grisly pranks are out of the Harold and Maude playbook and a homeless brother who rants like a mad prophet.

The Big C is tonally all over the place, to the point where a terminal illness almost seems a relief. Linney has her best moments as she tries to reform an overweight student (Gabourey Sidibe, way sparklier than in Precious) and befriends a cranky neighbor widow (scene-stealer Phyllis Somerville).

With guest stars like Cynthia Nixon and Liam Neeson on the horizon, this show bears watching even when you'd rather not. It helps that Linney is always to die for.

The Big C premieres Monday at 10:30/9:30c on Showtime

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