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‘The Big C’ Faces Its Own Mortality

Showtime’s Laura Linney comedy reinvents itself as a miniseries

If there’s a business angle to the reinvention of the half-hour episodic comedy “The Big C” as a fourhour dramatic miniseries for its farewell season, it’s this: It’s good business to keep viewers happy.

Ratings for the show were nothing special in 2012, even by pay cable standards: roughly half a million overall for the third-season finale in June. But rather than end things unceremoniously and leave loyalists unfulfilled, Showtime and the producers of the Laura Linney starrer switched gears to bring “Big C” to an organic denouement.

Season three could have been the series’ finale, Showtime entertainment prexy David Nevins told Variety, “but we wanted to find a way to give closure to the people who had been watching. I think it’s important as a premium service that we treat the individual audience (for each show) with respect and care.”

In the case of “Big C,” that involved a growing realization that the final episodes of the skein, which revolves around a woman coming to grips with cancer, would involve a delicate shift in tone. Showrunner Jenny Bicks said producers didn’t approach that shift as a change in genre as much as a gain in the ability to “live in the silences” a bit more with the hourlong segs, running April 29-May 20.

“I would say it’s probably less tonally comedic,” Bicks said, “(though) there’s still plenty of comedy. We’re certainly hitting some dark places. I think we just wanted to let everyone breathe a bit.”

Another consideration was the desire to move faster through time. Previously, the show’s storytelling spanned just three months in the characters’ lives per TV season.

“I feel really good about the way the episodes came out,” Nevins said, “and I think the format choice gave a very interesting shape to a show that has always been slightly groundbreaking: a comedy about mortality.”

The decision to shift the format to hourlong segs was in keeping with the tonal shift; the difference in the cost of producing four hours compared with 10 half-hours, as “Big C” did in its previous three seasons, was negligible. The longer format suited the nature of the story, and made the episodes more marketable for Showtime as an event finale. Bicks noted that the writing staff consequently became more streamlined for Bicks and series creator Darlene Hunt.

“Basically the only writers were (Hunt) and myself,” Bicks said. “We had seven writers at (the show’s) peak. … (This) was very much more an intimate process; she and I knew the direction we wanted to go.”

The move to four hours also had the byproduct of putting “Big C” in the Primetime Emmys movie-miniseries category. As a mini, the show will not be competing against such Showtime teammates as half-hours “Nurse Jackie” and “House of Lies” in the comedy series category for Emmy recognition.

If anything, “Big C” has been another show that makes the case for the Emmys to have a dramedy category.

But the pursuit of awards wasn’t the put of the format shift.

“This really felt like we’re doing it the way we want to do it, and we don’t have any regrets about how we went out,” Bicks said. “I guess like life, if you can say that, you’ve done something right.”

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