Thursday, September 1, 2011

"The Big C" and Mental Illness

I really enjoy Showtime shows, and I watch (or watched, as the case may be) almost all of them. Weeds, Dexter, Nurse Jackie, Shameless, The Tudors (!), I even enjoyed the first two seasons of The United States of Tara, even with its corny name.

And I enjoy The Big C. I think it's a clever premise, I mean, it's got a built-in tidy ending so it can pretty easily avoid the cruel fates of Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me. The cruel, cruel fates...

The Big C tells the story of Cathy Jamison, a suburban teacher, wife, and mother suddenly diagnosed with stage IV melanoma. The show follows Cathy using her remaining time to live her life to the fullest, reconcile with her family and past, and seeking treatment to extend her time. It's got an awesome cast and fabulous writing, realistic story lines, humor, and genuine heart.

But for all its good points, and there are many, The Big C has been toying with mentally ill characters and I'm not entirely sure they're handling it well.

The first hit came during the premiere of season 2, first airing June 27, when we suddenly find out-- with no warning, no build up-- that Cathy's fundamentalist environmentalist homeless freegan brother is bipolar. This revelation turns Sean from an awesome, funny Earth warrior to an unmedicated nutcase, which destroys his credibility because it turns his truthy diatribes on the evils of the first world into paranoid ramblings. The sickest part of it is that it seems the only reason they did it is so they could have Cathy say, "I'm fighting for my life and you're throwing yours away" when she's convincing him to go back on his medication. I understand wanting to put that in there, but it could have been done so much better in so many different ways. It just felt cheap.

And you can see the change in the way John Benjamin Hickey plays him now, Sean isn't the uber-genius disillusioned with life, he's darker now...angrier. He talks a little louder, a little fiercer. He doesn't play Sean's ideas as reasonable anymore, they're obsessive thoughts that Sean will hear no word against.

On the August 22nd episode, "A Little Death", we're introduced to a new character played by Parker Posey. Poppy is a childish woman in her 30s that befriends Cathy's teenage son Adam on an online forum for cancer patients' children. Soon after Adam, and we, meet Poppy in person we see a series of parallel scars on her arm from cutting. Adam makes a face when he notices them but doesn't say anything. On the most recent episode, Poppy takes Adam to her high school reunion where, after an uncomfortable encounter with former tormentors, Poppy locks herself in the bathroom to cut herself while she sends Adam to buy feminine hygiene products for her. Adam sees the marks, and makes another face, but again doesn't say anything to her.

Later in the episode Adam asks Cathy if she remembers a little neighbor boy that used to bite himself, and asked her why she thinks he did it. She responds that the little boy was going through some hard times, and Adam responds that what happened wasn't the boy's fault. Cathy says she thinks it was because when some people go through things they take out the hurt and frustration on themselves instead of others. Adam says this is "f***ed up" and Cathy agrees. I don't have any problem with this, makes sense and realistically demonstrates the average person's understanding of self injury. I'm curious to see how this plays out in future episodes.

But then Sean's instability is brought back into focus when he, still reeling from his fiance's miscarriage, runs away after hearing his new neighbors singing to their perpetually crying baby. Sean leaves a note saying as much, which Cathy finds...scrawled onto the wall of Sean's living room in paint.

I wonder about the research the writers of shows do regarding these things. The United States of Tara handled Tara's mental illness well, but they never touched on the chronically ill. The Big C is doing a great job analyzing the angles that come with being sick, but so far their treatment of the mentally ill doesn't feel as sensitive or realistic.

I'm going to keep watching, but it's definitely something that's affecting my viewing experience. Anybody else?

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