Panel Nerds: Discussing Showtime’s The Big C


Who: Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon, Gabourey Sidibe, Phyllis Somerville, John Benjamin Hickey, Darlene Hunt, Jenny Bicks, Vivian Cannon, moderated by Anita Gates
What: “The Big C
Where: Paley Center for Media
When: November 1, 2010
: Up

The Big C isn’t the first TV show to tackle the difficult and uncomfortable subject of cancer. It’s not even the first comedy to broach the subject. But it does appear to be one of, if not the most, daring of the bunch.

It was conceived by executive producers Darlene Hunt and Vivian Cannon who said they wanted to make a show that would offer “laughter through tears.” Hunt, however, didn’t have firsthand knowledge about how to write about a woman dealing with cancer. She said that found her inspiration while spending time with her new baby and realizing she wouldn’t be alive for the duration of the child’s life. It forced her to confront her own mortality, she said. For Cannon, it came in the form of conversations with some of her friends who were fighting cancer.

With hits like Nurse Jackie, Dexter, Weeds, and The United States of Tara under its belt, Showtime was “the right fit” for the show, the panel said. Although the show revolves around Laura Linney’s “Cathy Jamison” character, the supporting cast is as impressive as any on television. Phyllis Somerville says her character and Linney’s are “a good match” who have a lot to learn from one another; Gabourey Sidibe says her character empowers Jamison to stand up for herself. Executive producer Jenny Bicks added that Sidibe’s “Andrea” and “Cathy” are “an unlikely duo.” And Cynthia Nixon’s “Rebecca,” a newcomer to the show, enters at a time when “Cathy” needs a “deep connection” with an old friend the most, said Linney.

The writers explained that they used the first half of this first season to allow “Cathy” to experience the five stages of grief. From there, she could move on and evaluate her life. Hunt says that before beginning filming, she did did research into all kinds of cancer making sure to pick the one that suited the show best (Stage 4 Melanoma). The choice allowed them to explore the effects of the cancer on “Cathy” before it began to take a toll on her body and became visible. Hunt said that it’s not a death sentence, that some people have recovered from it. But she acknowledged that she wished to “play it close to the edge.”

What They Said
“There are incredibly absurd moments in the middle of suffering.”
– Jenny Bicks believes that cancer and comedy can go hand in hand

“She’s not willing to just function anymore. She wants to live what’s left.
– Laura Linney explains her character’s impulsive and erratic behavior

“It was fairly lucrative if not demoralizing.”
Darlene Hunt says that prior to The Big C she’d been making a living writing failed TV pilots

“I don’t think my special brand of self confidence comes from anyone outside of me.”
Gabourey Sidibe is fine with herself

“It’s fun to play someone who is reaching for and experiencing exhilaration – whose senses are heightened.”
– Laura Linney finds meaning in her character’s triumphs

What We Thought

  • This was a huge panel with eight guests and not a lot of time to get through everything. Moderator Anita Gates did her best to include everyone with at least one question per person before turning it over to the audience. Gates made do with what she had, but we think that this panel would have been enhanced by leaving two or three people off.
  • At many panels and events, inevitably one audience member will ask the panelists for advice about breaking into Hollywood. We’ve heard many actors respond that working hard and making opportunities will eventually pay off. But coming from Darlene Hunt this time, we found this advice particularly wise and accurate. It’s not always the big-name stars who can shed some light.

Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…Unwelcome Critics
You may be a television writer or aspiring one who wants to discuss the craft with professionals. It’s fine to mention you’re struck by some of the producers’ and writers’ decisions. But don’t undermine their show and talent by asking them to elaborate on their storytelling techniques that have left you unsatisfied or second-guessing. Moreover, pointing out that they need to speed up the narrative to show the main character’s “motivation” makes you appear impatient. Next time we suggest leading with a compliment instead of a critique.

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