Following a recommendation from a friend, I recently started watching the catch-up of a TV show called ‘The Big C’ whose first season has almost finished being shown on More 4 and Channel 4.

The shows starts with teacher Cathy Jamsion (played by Oscar nominated actress Laura Linney) being diagnosed with a Stage 4 Malignant Melanoma and the focus of the show is her reaction to the news and how it affects her relationships with her family and friends. At first you think the show (with its almost inevitable ending) will end up being very dark and depressing but in fact the show is a comedy drama and is a lot easier to watch than you might think. Cathy reacts to her diagnosis by making changes to her behaviour and making sure she does things that she kept putting off in the past.

The thing that struck me fairly early on is certain similarities to another TV program where the central and pivotal character is dying of cancer. Three years ago this same premise was used on the show ‘Breaking Bad’ where Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) discovers he has inoperable Lung Cancer. Both Laura Linney and the Emmy award winning Bryan Cranston have been lauded by both critics and viewers for their acting performances.

‘The Big C’ (produced by the Showtime network in the US) has a large cast, led by lazy and laid back husband Paul (played by Oliver Platt) and slightly crazy but sparky environmentalist brother Sean (played by John Benjamin Hickey). Rounding out the cast is her errant teenage son, annoying elderly neighbour, young but sensitive doctor and her favourite overweight pupil.

The show blends Linney’s interactions with all these characters with the bitter sweet knowledge that they start out not knowing her condition, apart from the Doctor who is her confidant. Linney is absolutely delightful in this role and manages to be humorous and poignant without being too sad. I have seen three episodes so far but will definitely be watching this through to the end. And, yes there is going to be a Season Two.

‘Breaking Bad’ (produced by the AMC network in the US) was shown first in the UK by FX and then Five USA for two series. There has been a third series shown in the US but this has not yet been picked up over here yet. The other similarities between this and ’The Big C’ was that both of the central characters were teachers and both chose to initially not tell any loved ones about their condition. This gives each show a dramatic edge at the beginning as you wonder how long they can carry on without them knowing.

Walter is a chemistry teacher and a very ordinary guy who missed a few chances in his life to make a difference. He has a different reaction to his cancer than Cathy in ‘The Big C’. Walter’s immediate concern is not the present but the future as he realises that his absence will cause financial problems for his wife (pregnant with a late and unplanned for baby) and his teenage son who has cerebral palsy. His need for money leads him towards making the drug crystal meth after he spots a former pupil escaping from a drug raid carried out by his brother in law Dean (a drug enforcement agent).
This is where the title of piece (Breaking Bad) starts making sense, as the decent and upstanding citizen Walter ‘breaks bad’ by making and selling crystal meth for all kinds of addicts and unsavoury characters in the local area. Walter becomes the ‘Cook’ for the drug and is ably supported in this piece by former pupil Jesse (extremely well played by Aaron Paul) who is streetwise and has the smarts and contacts to get the ‘business’ rolling.

The show is a slow burner in great contrast to ‘The Big C’ which is fast and quick hitting, I would give ‘Breaking Bad’ a high recommendation as long as you can stay with it as I found Episode 6 completely mind-blowing and one of the best episodes of TV I have ever seen. Don’t cheat and fast forward as it is the gradual build up that gives this particular episode the high drama that makes the best TV drama so good to watch.

Cranston is simply amazing in this role where he has to be meek, quiet, naive and unassuming but becomes totally driven by what he needs to do. The show is superbly put together by Vince Gilligan (a former writer with the X-Files) who manages to get so many of the small details exactly right. There are a few subtle nods to the X-Files in the show for those that may look for them.

The UK DVD is due for release on 2nd May 2011 and surprisingly is out one month before the US release.

Paul and Gary (The TV Drama Club)