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‘Weeds’ and ‘The Big C’ on the same side of the fence

In the lead up to their 2010 fall comedy season, Showtime has decided to pair its new Laura Linney vehicle, “The Big C” with its returning champion “Weeds.” This programming decision makes sense: These shows about two strong women seem like perfect neighbors and the network is making a strong showing of faith in this double-bill by presenting them back-to-back on Mondays.

A hallmark of “Weeds” over the years has been its namesake resilience. Creator Jenji Cohen has not been shy about discarding much of the show’s original premise since its 2005 premiere — shedding everything from major characters to the original theme song. And while “Weeds” made its initial splash by being about a pot-dealing mom in the suburbs, it’s now completely free of both pot dealing and the suburbs. These changes have served the show well, and for any knocks that it’s taken, you can’t accuse it of getting stale. But if we can take the season premiere as any indication, a new tonal shift may turn out to be less than welcome.

“Weeds” has become more surreal over the last couple of seasons, and the lack of grounding is taking a toll. Once upon a time, the delight of the show was seeing how far Nancy would go to protect her family and uphold the suburban status quo, but that show is a distant memory. The problem isn’t just that the situations the Botwins find themselves in have become increasingly ludicrous — they have — it’s that the show is no longer tethered to any kind of relatable reality. Mary-Louise Parker’s deadpan delivery, as she flees her drug-kingpin husband and deals with the fact that her son has just become a murderer, now feels more absurd than ironic. The dialogue has become increasingly stilted and the relationships feel two-dimensional. (It’s a bad sign when a show about parenthood makes you wish ACS would get involved.) That said, it’s early on in the season, and Cohen and company have delivered pleasant surprises on more than one occasion. Let’s hope that as the world changes around the Botwin family, the characters can keep “Weeds” grounded.

Following this perplexing premiere was “The Big C,” which felt refreshingly authentic in comparison to its aforementioned neighbor in the Monday-night lineup. Oh yeah, and it’s a real knee-slapper of a show about cancer. The series kicks off mise-en-scène, which spares us a treacly montage of scenes about her diagnosis and its aftermath. Rather, we are thrown right into her world as she tries to navigate the last year of her life. Cancer is a grim business, no doubt, but Cathy rejects both denial and despair. There’s a lot of nuance in this half-hour, and it’s a credit to the superb cast, from Linney to Oliver Platt as her man-child husband to John Benjamin Hickey as her environmentalist brother, who all keep the action both entertaining and credible.

For now, Cathy is keeping her condition a secret from everyone except her handsome young doctor. Yes, she’s trying to live life to the fullest, and make the most of the time she has left. And yet, it doesn’t play like a worn “bucket-list” movie.  Somehow “The Big C” manages to be both funny and engaging while commendably resisting the temptation to lapse into pathos. A more cynical, less-confident show would lean on its protagonist’s impending doom to elicit emotion from its viewers. Instead, we get a well-developed and multifaceted character. By the end of the first episode, one suspects that the “Big C” here is Cathy.

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