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Summer ends on 'The Big C': A chat with executive producer Darlene Hunt

November 15, 2010 |  6:00 am


Note to "The Big C": You got us!

Heading into Monday's season finale, after an anxiety-ridden 12 episodes of worrying about Cathy, her Stage 4 melanoma and her crumbling marriage, viewers find themselves in an unexpected place. We grieve not for Cathy (Laura Linney) but for the lovable Marlene, Cathy's feisty neighbor and new friend, who chose suicide over living with Alzheimer's.

Fans of the show took to the Internet immediately after the Nov. 8 episode to voice their hurt and disappointment, a testament, really, to the magnetic performance of Phyllis Sommerville. But, while we will definitely still miss her, the series' first season finale (which we've seen) definitely shows there's a method to the madness of the writers. We asked creator and executive producer Darlene Hunt for a spoiler-free chat about her creative decisions and what viewers can look forward to in the second season.

"I love reading the Facebook page, and I was getting sick to my stomach as I was reading comments about how much people missed her and how devastating that was," Hunt said.  "And I was overcome with this feeling of regret — why did we do that? In a bigger sense, this show is really an exploration of mortality. And death is part of everyday life, and there is still an opportunity to explore how Marlene affected Cathy. When we lose people, do they stay in our life in some way? Do they affect the decisions that we make? Because they live in us and continue to be a part of our lives. But I think having her die and having her choose her way out the way she did, it’s an interesting theme to explore, which really highlights what the series is about."

Hunt designed the show to follow Cathy one season at a time, figuring that if the show were a hit and lasted at least six years, that would amount to 18 months in Cathy's life. The end of the show's first season is timed with the end of summer: Cathy has finally told her family she is sick and has decided to seek alternative treatments, even though she is still unwilling to try radiation or chemotherapy.

"I’m really excited to tackle the cancer element of it," Hunt said. "It was a secret the first season, and I think viewers will be satisfied to see her, really, address the cancer head on." In January, the writers will begin working on the second season, which takes place in autumn, and production begins in March in Stamford, Conn.

"While we haven’t started the writers' room yet, we’ve been doing research and having meetings to discuss themes," Hunt said. "We're also meeting with an oncologist and a melanoma survivor to talk about their journeys and expertise."

Darlene Hunt_THE BIG C_Photo By Cliff Lipson_Courtesy of SHOWTIME To be sure, "The Big C" has navigated tricky waters, telling the story of a terminally ill woman in the prism of a half-hour comedy. Linney's Cathy is a complicated, nuanced woman who reacted to her diagnosis by wanting to make drastic changes in her life while keeping her disease a secret. In the process, she separates from her husband, Paul (Oliver Platt), without ever telling him why — a seemingly selfish decision that, at times, alienated viewers but made the journey all the more believable.

"I found out in some of my research that it’s not something wholly uncommon for people to do after they get diagnosed — to keep it a secret from a few or many people in their lives," Hunt said. "And I like this idea that this character would make that choice because she wanted to keep it to herself. She didn’t want to start living the cancer right away. She wanted to start living her life.

"I love it when people get inspired by her and say that they’ve been inspired to make better decisions in their own life because of the show. And that is so exciting to me. But I’m also not afraid when people don’t like her or don’t like decisions she makes because it’s real and interesting to create a character who you disagree with."

In hindsight, Hunt says she wishes she would have let viewers in on more of what was ailing Cathy and Paul's marriage before she was diagnosed and caused her to ask him to move out.  In recent episodes, Paul and Cathy have reconciled in their own way, and he's committed to being a supportive partner for her. 

"To be honest, I have a little regret that maybe we didn’t totally explore their marriage in a way that would have made people understand a little more why she’s shutting him out," Hunt said. "But that being said, the way it stands, I think she’s angry. And right or wrong, she feels like she lost herself to the marriage. She put him first. And maybe that was her fault and not his. But I think she’s mad about it. She has wanted to explore some different things and live a little separately from him."

Hunt, who wrote 15 pilots over nine years before she landed her deal with Showtime for "The Big C," says that even last week when some viewers criticized the decision to have Marlene die, she was struck by a single realization.

"It really is completely overwhelming to me that I’ve created something that affects people," she said. "Although Marlene's death may have been devastating for some, I hope as they continue to watch, they'll realize that it will be for good reason. But that people say they are affected by the show and even inspired to make changes in their lives — that's just overwhelming to me."

Note to readers/viewers: Have some Kleenex handy for the finale.

— Maria Elena Fernandez

Photos: (Top) Phyllis Somerville as Marlene and Laura Linney as Cathy in "The Big C." Credit: Ken Regan/Showtime

(Bottom): Darlene Hunt, creator and executive producer of "The Big C." Credit: Cliff Lipson/Showtime


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