Last year at this time, it was unclear whether a new show primarily focusing on a woman diagnosed with cancer would be a ratings success or too much of a downer to keep the interest of viewers. Thankfully, with TV vets like Jenny Bicks ("Sex and the City") and Darlene Hunt ("Will & Grace") at the helm and actors like Laura Linney, Oliver Platt and John Benjamin Hickey in the primary roles, Showtime's "The Big C" proved any naysayers wrong. In fact, Linney's Golden Globe win earlier this year proved that there was much to love about a series that has successfully found humor in a very dark subject.
As season two kicks off tonight, Cathy (played by Linney) moves from the stage of denial to that of anger and, as executive producer Bicks told our Jim Halterman, the collective characters and stories on the series are also moving to new arenas and that will include familiar faces like Alan Alda, Hugh Dancy and Parker Posey, who each pop up in upcoming guest roles.
Jim Halterman: From watching the first episodes of this new season, you've really upped the ante in terms of everyone's respective story. Can you talk about approaching the new season?
Jenny Bicks: We base each of the seasons on a level of grief the first stage being denial and obviously in the first season she wasn't telling people and was living large and then the second level of grief is anger so what we wanted to do was start with a sense of fighting; she was going to be a fighter this year. That created lots of story because more people know about her situation but she also is being much more active about seeking answers. And anytime you're in the second season you have it a lot better than the first season. You know who the characters are, you're not having to over explain everything so overall we created a world where we were able to complicate everyone more.
JH: What was response you received from the first season from cancer patients?
JB: We don't consider this to be a show about cancer but it is a show about mortality, about living and dying and the choices you make but as we went along it was definitely gratifying to feel like the people who have really been through this really understand what she was going through. I think for people who haven't been through it it was harder for them at first. This idea that she wasn't telling everybody was really hard for some viewers but not hard for those who had dealt with cancer. What we found out was that people are so happy that they feel like cancer has a voice. It's not this thing you whisper. It's been exposed and it's not all tragedy. There's a huge amount of absurd comedy in the mix of it all and that's what we wanted to play with, as well.
JH: Impending death is always an unseen character in the show but what are the challenges of making sure you find the humor to balance the tone of the show.
JB: If you have a show worth writing, you have something that the characters are coming up against. In our case it happens to be mortality but keep in mind that the flip side of that is life, the idea of living bigger and better than you have before so we have a built-in way to have a lot of fun and to give her permission to do things that a typical character wouldn't. Once you have a character who can do anything and get away with anything, you have a lot of potential for comedy so that's how we see it.
JH: I am relieved that Marlene (Phyllis Somerville) is still very much a part of the show despite her committing suicide last season. Was that always the plan for her character to bring her back?
JB: We knew from the outset that Marlene was going to go and we needed something that would turn Cathy from her denial to action and sometimes it takes somebody else's death or somebody else's action to create that for yourself. Did we know from the onset that we would bring her back? Not necessarily but I think we realized how important she was to Cathy and she became a touchstone for her and somebody who was really honest with her and we wanted to make sure she didn't lose that. We were also interested in the idea - not to get too esoteric - [Cathy is] going to encounter a character played by Hugh Dancy, who is a Buddhist. Buddhists believe there is a very fine line between life and death and as you get closer to death you get closer to life. We wanted to play with Cathy being more in touch with the next world, whatever that is [and] in that way Marlene also played a great role. Whether you believe she's a ghost or a figment of her imagination, Cathy is more able to touch the other side than anyone else.
JH: So, besides going through the anger stage, what else is Cathy going to be going through. Are she and Paul (Oliver Platt) going to be together? Or is that going to make some changes, too?
JB: This season they are together and he is trying as hard as he can to be the best support system he can be because Paul, like anyone, has his foibles and I think he has to grow up pretty quickly in the relationship. He does a pretty good job but it puts a strain on him. You'll find that he's acting out in ways that he didn't the first season and that will lead to some pretty big consequences for him but they will be together. They will be tested by her relationship with the Hugh Dancy character but they are a married couple trying to bog through it all.
JH: But what about Dr. Todd (Reid Scott)?
JB: [Laughs.] What about Dr. Todd?
JH: I kinda want them to get together! I like them together!
JB: You do?! People got very angry with us over that kiss! Anytime you have a character act out of how they are supposed to be in their profession that upsets people so I got a bunch of doctors saying 'That would never happen! This is unethical!' I'm thinking, "Yes, this is unethical but it's real. It happens. People get attached.' And especially with cancer when your doctor becomes your savior and for a doctor, there is a lot of pressure there. Dr. Todd will be around and they'll have to deal with his lingering feelings and they'll always have a relationship in some way or another. Most people would not be happy with her leaving Paul for Dr. Todd.
JH: And Adam (Gabriel Basso) had such a powerful reaction last season when he found out but where is he going? We don't often get a window into a teenager's response to all this.
JB: We did a lot of research when we started this season on what a kid of 15 would really be going through with a parent with cancer and one thing a lot of them said was that a lot of kids just want to be normal. They don't want to be treated differently and in some ways they're in denial so even though he had that breakdown in that storage locker at the end of season one there wasn't going to be a magical change where he would suddenly be the perfect son. What he's doing this season in his own way is acting out against his Mom's cancer in a much more active way and he's definitely going to fall down a bit of a rabbit hole. He's just trying to find some way to be normal but also feel better and for him feeling better might mean sleeping with random girls, which is what some kids of that age do. We wanted to be true to his path and over the course of the season you'll see that he does grow up with the help of the Parker Posey character who he befriends.
JH: When you first created Rebecca, was there a concern that she would be too unlikable? I mean, she says some of the most awful, self-absorbed things! How did you find that and how much does it rest on Cynthia Nixon's performance?
JB: Cynthia plays a really lovable narcissist. If it hadn't been Cynthia I would be more worried but I think she has these ways of saying these incredibly narcissistic things like, 'You're my first friend with cancer and I'll be forever changed.' But you're with her. She's also non-judgmental and fun loving and there's a really positive side to her that makes it okay. As we go through the season, she softens as she continues to carry this child and she'll get more maternal and she and Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) get more closer. But she absolutely says some of the craziest stuff and, thank God for Cynthia, she makes it lovable. Sometimes I want to say to her 'Don't be so likable.'
JH: In these new episodes, Cathy tries to get Sean to fight for his life and take his meds. Like the concerns the character voices, if he does get back on his meds will we lose what we love about Sean?
JB: He is going to start taking his meds and what you'll find with Sean is that with meds he is still Sean but he's just not so unhinged. He'll be able to be a bit more stable but the fun Sean is still there, he's just able to focus, which interestingly causes new issues for his relationship with Rebecca because I think she's liked him staying less focused. She's not someone who likes a lot of focus on her so in the end it creates some issues.
JH: You have a great caliber of guest stars this season but when you bring them in do you ever worry about them coming in and viewers not being able to see beyond that idea of 'Oh, that's Alan Alda.'
JB: I think in all of the cases, we created the character before we brought the actor in. I think the problem sometimes is when you know who is going to play it and you write too much to them. In this case, we had these characters and then they came in and made it their own so I thought it was still Dr. Atticus Sherman with a touch of Alan Alda. But I'm not going to deny that when you hear Alan Alda you think of Hawkeye being the doctor I'm going to trust.
JH: But Dr. Sherman is not exactly all warm and fuzzy, is he?
JB: Not at all and that's going to be a real challenge for Cathy coming off of Dr. Todd. The only character that actually was helpful was when I created the character of Poppy, who is the Parker Posey character, I kept thinking Parker Posey in my head when I was writing her but to actually get the person you're imagining is really great! That will be interesting when you see her playing that character.
JH: I didn't touch on Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) moving into Cathy's house. How does that evolve?
JB: She moves in because her parents go off to be missionaries in Ghana and she wants to graduate so Cathy offers for her to move in and it's interesting because her relationship deepens with them and she has a love interest so she has her own story this year with this Ukrainian guy, which gets very complicated. Gaby has done terrific work this year.
JH: Looking at your cast of regular actors on the show, are you ever wow'd at the caliber of talent? I mean, John Benjamin Hickey just won the Tony for The Normal Heart on Broadway!
JB: We are so, so lucky and I think it's also the beauty of the second season and this happened on 'Sex And The City.' On the first season we couldn't get arrested. Nobody knew who we were and we couldn't shoot on the streets without getting kicked off but then people start to watch the show and actors want to be a part of it. Laura has so much to do with that because she's worked with so many terrific people and she has such a terrific reputation and people love to work with her so it doesn't take much to get these great actors to join our other great actors. Sometimes you feel like you have this AAA vault of amazing theater actors who are an amazing ensemble.
"The Big C" returns tonight at 10:30/9:30c on Showtime right after "Weeds."