Laughing in the face of The Big C

The US show’s tumour humour is entertaining, but doesn’t kill off the idea that ‘positive thinking’ is the key to survival.

David Bowden

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In real life, death is a very dull and dreary affair, as Somerset Maugham warned, yet in art nothing is funnier, to observers at least, than a drawn-out death scene. So the students sneering and chuckling during the annual ritual Harvard screening of overblown Seventies weepie Love Story, are merely following in a noble tradition of those who laugh in the face of death.

It is surprising, then, that it has taken until now for a comedy on the subject of cancer to emerge. Cancer, after all, is to modern audiences what the consumptive’s blood-stained cough was to Charles Dickens’ readers. The American comedy The Big C arrived on British screens last week, garlanded with awards, adding an apparently much-needed dose of humour to gritty tales of personal survival.

Well, at least the marketing people say it’s much needed. Eagle-eyed observers may note that popular culture is already positively festooned with black-comic portrayals of characters struggling with their mortality. For instance, way back in 2004, British viewers were treated to Julia Davis’ magnificently twisted Nighty Night. And Breaking Bad, about a dying high-school chemistry teacher who turns to crystal meth dealing in lieu of adequate health and life insurance, has been rightly lauded as one of the best dramas around, its bleakness offset by a Bible-black sense of humour. There’s even a (dreadful-looking) cancer-themed romantic comedy, A Little Bit of Heaven, starring Kate Hudson, hitting our cinema screens in time for Valentine’s Day this year. And, one of The Big C’s stars, Oliver Platt, was also in the gorgeous indie-flick comedy Pieces of April, in which Patricia Clarkson played the cancer-ridden mother of April (Katie Holmes).

A lot of this death humour has been inspired by the success of HBO’s masterful funeral-home drama Six Feet Under which, before The Wire came along, ranked alongside The Sopranos as one of the broadcasters’ big hits. Six Feet Under writer Alan Ball has remarked that he was tickled by the thought of making a show about undertakers set among the ageing hippies and health fascists of sunny California.

Yet there’s more to this black tumour humour than creative inspiration. In recent years, there has been a reaction against the ‘cancer industry’, a chief target of Barbara Ehrenreich’s engaging critique of positive thinking, Smile or Die, published last year. Having undergone chemotherapy herself, Ehrenreich was shocked at the apparent celebration of a crushing disease by ‘cancer survivors’. Pamphlets assured her that ‘cancer is your ticket to real life’ and she was rebuked by other sufferers for showing a ‘bad attitude’ in moments of despair. Laughter in the dark is one thing but, Ehrenreich suggests, smiling in the face of genuine adversity is perverse.

But The Big C doesn’t seem particularly interested in questioning this kind of attitude. Instead, it uses terminal illness as a classic conceit for a dowdy housewife deciding to turn her life around and rediscovering that cancer is, well, her ticket to real life. The show is breezy and entertaining but, given the gravity of its theme, seems to lack a degree of bite. The cancer-sufferer (played by Laura Linney) flirts with her youngish doctor, has a couple of affairs and takes the opportunity to tell a few home truths to her friends and relatives. Even her anti-consumerist, enviro-fanatic brother fails to generate any spark or reflection on modern attitudes to life and society. Compared to Emma Bovary, whose primary motivation for throwing off the shackles of bourgeois society was essentially boredom, Linney’s reaction to impending extinction seems rather tame.

It’s difficult to sympathise with those who have criticised the show for not being interested in the realities of cancer itself – anybody who read Harold Pinter’s senselessly lauded poem ‘Cancer Cells’ will know that cancer is not interesting to anybody but the sufferer. Yet neither does it do much to take up the attitude that having cancer is some kind of fashion statement, or to endorse a worldview that seems to regard death as the only thing that gives life meaning.

My advice for those who want to see a good show about cancer is to dig out the 2001 TV film, Wit . It doesn’t attempt to have much of a laugh about cancer, but at least it decorates its misery with beautiful things such as the music of Bach, the poetry of John Donne, and the spectacle of Emma Thompson dying slowly and painfully for an hour and a half. It may be melodramatic, but then a bit of drama seems a healthier attitude towards death than a comedy, like The Big C, that is unlikely to have you dying with laughter.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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