Who would think "cancer," then think "comedy"? Yet from the moment it debuted last year, Showtime's The Big C has enchanted viewers with its refreshingly direct and unapologetically funny approach to fatal illness. It doesn't hurt that the versatile Laura Linney plays irreverent history teacher Cathy Jamison, diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma, nor that the series boasts an equally accomplished cast of costars. As Season 2 begins (Monday, 10:30 PM), the show's creator, Darlene Hunt, talks to More about past episodes and what's in store.
MORE: I’ve read that you got the idea for this series when you became a mother.
Darlene Hunt: That was my inspiration. I had a general meeting with the producer Vivian Cannon, and at that meeting, she said.,“It’s time for a cancer comedy.” As soon as she said “cancer comedy,” I liked the idea. I’m not a cancer survivor, but I use laughter to get through hard times in my own life. I thought that this could be really special. But I had to find a way into the material.
I went home to my newborn, my first child, and I had this overwhelming sense of my own mortality and I got so sad thinking about how I wouldn’t always be in her life. So for me the show at its core is about the plight of us all. Cancer is a secondary topic.
More: Whose idea was it to cast Laura Linney, who is so remarkable in the role?
DH: The president of Showtime at the time. He said, “I know Laura Linney doesn’t do television, but this might appeal to her.”
More: Some very good, famous actresses are now saying they give priority to television, because the best writing is in television.
DH: I’ve heard that sentiment, and as a TV writer it makes me feel good. Cable TV also allows writers extra freedom. We got an offer from Broadcast television and from Showtime for The Big C, but I thought that on cable I can go to darker places. I don’t think Broadcast would have put it on the air.
More: You were lucky to get such a great cast. How did Oliver Platt, who plays Cathy’s husband Paul, get involved?
DH: Oliver Platt—I adore that man. He was Laura’s idea. We had a sushi lunch early on and she had a list of actors she wanted to work with. She said Oliver Platt made her laugh harder than anyone else.
More: And Gabourey Sidibe, the star of Precious? Will she be back this season?
DH: Definitely. She’ll have a bigger role this season.
More: Her relationship with Linney’s character is really interesting. I like how tough Cathy is with her.
DH: Part of that comes from my friend. She was working at a homeless teen shelter, and I asked her, “What would you do if you had a limited time to live?” She said, “I’d just help the kids I worked with by offering them cash.” So when Cathy says, “I’ll give your $100 for every pound you lose”—that’s where that came from.
More: I also love the character of Cathy’s homeless brother, and the actor who plays him.
DH: John Benjamin Hickey—he’s in The Normal Heart on Broadway. He just won a Tony! Originally, I pitched a hypochondriac sister, but it was just one joke. It wasn’t deep enough. So I asked if I could change it to a homeless brother. I have friends who have that brother. A lot of families have that one member you’d like to control but you can’t.
More: Did Linney bring in Liam Neeson, in the episode where he guest-starred as the looney bee therapist? And did he improvise any of that? Because it was so different for him, this kind of tentative character.
DH: Yes. Laura and Liam are friends. We got a lot of actors that way. I don’t think he improvised, it’s all in the script as far as words, but he brought his own thing to it. He had fun with it. But he did seem quite nervous. He was surprised at how fast we move in TV.