Showtime Does Lady Pain Just Right

Last night's season finales of The Big C and Weeds demonstrated what HBO's oft-wayward younger brother does best. They make compelling, if ridiculous, drama about middle class women in precarious tight spots.

I was reluctant to watch, let alone like, Laura Linney's The Big C. Based on the premiere episode, I just wasn't sure if I could handle all the overly groomed quirkiness — inappropriate swears! stinky poo-poo onions! couches at the bottom of empty swimming pools! — but I kept coming back anyway, mostly for Linney's fascinating, messy performance. She's like her You Can Count On Me character, the quietly frustrated caregiver timidly stepping out on limbs, turned up to Spinal Tap's eleven. And I'm so glad that she was good enough to suck me into the show, because over the course of its thirteen episode season, it eschewed much of the quirk and settled into a comfortable kind of amped-up everyday humanism. Sure the noble hobo brother and wisecracking Precious bits all seemed a bit showy, but for the most part the series succeeded in connecting with the deep, satisfying undercurrent of pain that fuels it. I mean, it's about cancer, isn't it? So, good thing they eventually let it actually be about cancer.

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Last night's finale was sad, with Marlene's suicide and all, but it was also so surprisingly hopeful and promising. How do you sustain a show about a woman dying of cancer? Well, you have her cycle around, finally, to a point where she doesn't want to be dying of cancer anymore. Linney's Cathy has decided that life is worth holding onto, so that's where we're headed in the next season (or seasons). Of course things are still relatively dire and sad — Adam finding the car and all the presents in the storage unit was a surreal and tear-inducing moment — but a bit of uplift has blessedly been added to a show that once seemed threatened to be overcome by all of its perky gloom.

Speaking of perky gloom, let's talk about Weeds. This show and I aren't the best of friends — while I've loyally watched every season, I find its jazz-handsy nihilism to be a bit overwhelming — but darned if last night's crackerjack season finale didn't completely make up for an otherwise bizarre, scattershot season.

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The finale itself was bizarre and scattershot, with Iceland and Guillermo and the continued debasement of Richard Dreyfuss, but all of the noise and clutter ultimately built up into something tense and scary and strangely moving. Obviously this show has long been working toward some sort of divine judgment against Nancy for all the crimes of motherhood she's perpetrated against her family, and I think last night, with Nancy surrendering to the FBI after a banally frightening encounter with Esteban, we saw the beginning of her penitence. I'm still rooting for the crazy iced coffee slurper, but it was definitely satisfying in a dramaturgical kind of way to see her shit finally hit the fan. And Mary-Louise Parker was, as ever, a marvel of jangled nerves.

The Big C, despite its too-mordant verve, and Weeds, ditto, are what I wish Showtime's other ladies-in-peril half hours, Nurse Jackie and The United States of Tara, would be. C and Weeds manage to satisfy Showtime's insatiable demand for oddity while also appealing to our soapy human needs. Jackie and Tara are too done-in by zany circumstance, too pleased with their mistaken idea of wit, to ever hit home in the way their colleagues did last night. (Save the Marshall plotline on Tara. Sigh.) I'm glad that Weeds can still deliver the curious goods all the way into season six, and I'm even gladder that Laura Linney's big series debut turned out to be such a pleasant endeavor. Neither show is perfect, but they've still got me, despite myself, already counting the days until the next round of impossibly wacky (groan) adventures begins.