"The Big C," a provocative new offering from Showtime, could be a tough sell. It's a comedy - yes, a comedy - starring Laura Linney as an uptight Minneapolis school teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer. Are you laughing yet?
Linney, who is making her debut as a TV series regular, insists it's not as morbid as it sounds. The show, she says, revels in life much more than it dwells on death.
"When this script came to me, what hit me the most was the theme of time and what you do with time," she recalls. "What are the choices we make? How do we spend our time? It's a privilege to grow old and that's something I think a lot of people have forgotten in this very fast-paced world where youth is overly celebrated."
Linney, 46, plays Cathy Jamison, who, in the series opener, learns she has Stage 4 melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Instead of sharing the news with her husband (Oliver Platt), from whom she recently separated, Cathy begins to live in a more carefree and boisterous manner. She digs up her yard for the swimming pool she always wanted, sets fire to the couch she always hated and generally behaves in ways that astound those around her, including a feisty student played by Gabourey Sidibe.
"I love that she's taking the opportunity to figure out who she is," Linney says of the character. "And the diagnosis, if anything, sort of forces her on that journey. She's about to go through a huge growth spurt."
"The Big C," which debuts 10:30 p.m. Monday, joins Showtime's gallery of dark comedies tied to flawed and twisted women - the pot-peddling mom in "Weeds," the cheating caregiver in "Nurse Jackie," the housewife with multiple personalities in "The United States of Tara." But Linney's show could be the riskiest of them all because it dares to ask viewers to pledge their allegiance to a lead character even as it threatens to kill her off, potentially breaking a lot of hearts in the process.
And while many TV series have featured cancer-oriented story lines in recent years - "Brothers & Sisters," "Breaking Bad" and "Grey's Anatomy," to name a few - "The Big C" is distinctive in that it uses cancer to fuel its main narrative while attempting to find humor in it.
But Linney, who also serves as an executive producer on the show, points out that it's not the cancer that's funny, just the situations that cancer presents.
"I think any time your life is turned upside down and things are vulnerable, when you're entering a new territory that is unknown, urgent and frightening, funny things tend to happen," she says.
Still, it will take a deft touch to make it work, says executive producer Jenny Bicks, who successfully battled breast cancer a decade ago. She channeled the experience while writing about Samantha's encounter with the disease on "Sex and the City."
"It's a tightrope," Bicks says. "The comedy must always come from character and from these situations. And the same with the drama. I think if we get you to laugh once and cry once in an episode, then we've done our job. But it is a very fine line, and we police it a lot."
Dr. Lynn E. Spitler, director of the San Francisco-based Northern California Melanoma Center, is intrigued. She hopes "The Big C" can bring more attention to a form of cancer that remains a mystery to many.
"Everyone knows about breast cancer and self-examinations, but melanoma is still relatively unknown," she says. "So I think the idea (of the show) is terrific. Any time melanoma gets some kind of exposure in the media, we get an influx of patients. I guarantee you, this will save lives."
What Spitler isn't so sure about is a character who, at least initially, withholds her diagnosis from friends and relatives, and takes her life in wildly offbeat directions. "In my experience, just the opposite happens," she says. "Patients come into the clinic with their whole family surrounding them in support. And they strive to keep their lives as normal as possible."
But Bicks claims Linney's character is not intended to be a poster girl for how one goes about dealing with cancer.
"She's one woman, in one place in time, dealing with this specific kind of cancer and this is how she's doing it," she says. "We didn't set out to try to deliver lessons on how to do it. But I would hope that people watching it at least will feel like you shouldn't wait until you get cancer to make yourself happy."
Bicks says the fate of Linney's character has not been decided. But she plans to slow down time by having every season of the show represent a season on the calendar.
"We don't think in terms of when, or if, we are going to kill her because it's much more about exploring what she's going to be doing while she's alive," she says. "But if it comes time that she goes, she goes. We are not going to be afraid of that."
But the point will be moot if Showtime can't attract enough viewers to the series. To that end, the premium cable network is betting on Linney's acclaimed acting skills and her every woman appeal. It's also marketing the heck out of "The Big C" in irreverent style with ads that have Linney lounging with a beach ball on the sand inside an hourglass with a caption that reads, "Grabbing life by the balls."
Although her first big role was as Mary Ann Singleton in PBS' "Tales of the City" miniseries back in 1993, Linney has been best known in recent years for her work in film and theater and says she was never looking to land her own TV show. But when Showtime pitched her the script last year, it held her in thrall. Linney's mother was a nurse who worked with terminally ill patients, and the untimely deaths in recent years of several loved ones had her contemplating mortality.
"It sort of intersected with so many things I'd been thinking about in my day to day life that I realized I had to pay attention to it," she says. " ... I'm at the age where relatives are growing older and friends are dying sometimes in unexpected ways. It hits me in a very different way."
'The Big C'
Series premiere 10:30 p.m. Monday on Showtime