"I'm living the dream," whispers Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) to her neighbour's basset hound. "I'm here all year, performing at Stage IV! It's kinda funny. It's … death comedy." She laughs. Then she cries. Then she laughs again. "Bwowff!" soothes her thickset confidante, jowls swinging approvingly at her choice of metaphor. Such exchanges are not uncommon in The Big C, the new US comedy-drama in which a repressed teacher decides to view her inoperable cancer as a sort of Chessington World of Melanomas: madcap self-reinvention by the sea lion enclosure; knock-about biopsies behind the eastern-themed log flume.
The Big C isn't perfect. There's a little too much perk per pound, and a few too many moments where the mischief dissolves into gloopy, windchime-y mawkishness. But still, it remains that most welcome of creations: an original, intelligent and frequently blazingly funny series focusing on a woman defined not by her age, appearance or relationships, but by the manner in which she responds to challenging circumstances.
And Cathy Jamison is far from alone. A Showtime series broadcast here on More4, The Big C joins a growing number of compelling US productions in which flawed, complex, middle-aged women find themselves reassessing their lives. In the enduringly brilliant Weeds, widowed mother-of-two Nancy Botwin (played by Mary-Louise Parker, 46), reinvents herself as a morally skew-whiff drug dealer, a career choice which sets her on a collision course with clean-living best friend Celia Hodes (played with relish by fellow movie star Elizabeth Perkins, 50). CBS's The Good Wife casts Julianna Margulies (44) as a litigator attempting to re-establish her career, and her family's reputation, in the wake of her attorney husband's corruption scandal. Diablo "Juno" Cody's United States Of Tara (another Showtime belter that, inexplicably, is yet to be picked up by a UK channel), stars Toni Collette, 38, as a woman whose dissociative identity disorder manifests itself in a roster of alternate personalities. In Nurse Jackie's Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco, 47), meanwhile, the small screen has one of its most exquisitely complicated protagonists: an adulterous, unreliable NYC nurse who frets about the impact of her emotional remoteness on her children while banging the hospital pharmacist in exchange for Vicodin.
Here, women respond to crises not with hysteria, or stoicism, or geysers of airbrushed aphorisms. These are not the traditional selfless wives or still-got-it soccer moms dispensing pearls of homespun wisdom while bending over the laundry basket in shorts. Instead, they are multi-layered individuals, all linked by the sort of indefinite, wonky morality that was once the sole preserve of male characters.
After decades of high-maintenance manicures and the notion of empowerment-through-hotness, it's a revelation to find so many female leads who wouldn't look out of place examining turnips in Morrisons. Jackie Peyton shlumps through her storylines in trainers and an anorak, unpowdered T-zone glinting ferociously under hospital striplights. Cathy Jamison's wardrobe consists almost exclusively of plaid shirts and uneventful jeans. With Nancy Botwin's flammable Barbie twin-sets and endearingly repellent golf gear, meanwhile, Weeds is very much One Woman's Adventures in Budget Elastane. Gone, too, are premises predicated on "making it" in "a man's world" (© Ally McBeal, 1997).
Even those dramas founded on more mainstream set-ups – new cop series Chicago Code and The Closer, for example, starring, respectively, Jennifer Beals (47) and Kyra Sedgwick (45) – appear to have jettisoned the timeworn notion of the gutsy dame forced to overcome prejudice in a traditionally male environment. Instead, these dramas have succeeded in broadening the range of personality traits available to female characters. The result is not only an extraordinarily rich array of roles for older female actors, but also some of the most boldly original TV drama in years.
It's an approach that has proved hugely successful. Linney, Margulies, Collette, Sedgwick, Parker and Falco have all won Golden Globes and/or Emmys for their roles. In 2009, the relatively small, female-dominated cable channel Showtime – home to The Big C, Nurse Jackie, Weeds and The United States of Tara (all of which are written by women, too) – won more awards than any other network. "Television celebrates women," said Julianna Margulies in a recent interview. "It's where the best, richest roles for women are, period."
So why, then, is Britain yet to follow suit? There may be strong roles for women in our soaps, costume dramas and literary adaptations, but where are the original, modern dramas in which older female leads are forced to contend with issues beyond the family and workplace? America gets Nurse Jackie forging organ donor cards and fashioning a cancer patient's apple into a makeshift bong; we get the Mistresses tittering over cupcakes next to a Heal's floor lamp. They get emotional breakdowns, drug-running and terminal illnesses; we get the cast of Downton Abbey blushing over a footman buffing the wrong tureen. Where's the oomph, the grit, the kapow?
Until the UK catches up (and it seems inevitable that we will; it remains one of TV's least irksome truisms that wherever America goes, Britain is sure to follow), let's celebrate the progress being made on the other side of the Atlantic. So hurrah for those commissioners who refuse to flinch from female leads who don't have skin like steamrollered silk or clavicles like semi-toppled Jenga towers. Hurrah for the death of "women's issues" and the death comedy of The Big C. And three cheers for smart, dark, adventurous and unpredictable dramas in which middle-aged women are allowed to experiment with self-reinvention, to occasionally place their own needs above those of their families, to ignore their cuticles, to excel at some stuff, to fail at other stuff and – should push come to shove – to confide in sympathetic basset hounds. More power to their plaid shirts.