EMMYS: 'The Big C's Jenny Bicks

Jenny Bicks, formerly a writer on HBO’s long-running Sex And The City and creator of ABC’s short-lived Men In Trees, is the cancer survivor who runs The Big C, created by Darlene Hunt. It stars Laura Linney as a teacher, wife, and mother living with a diagnosis of a life-threatening melanoma. It joins Showtime’s other dramedies likely to compete with more traditional sitcoms and hour-longs for this year’s Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. Bicks talks with Deadline TV Contributor Diane Haithman about her reaction to positive Emmy buzz and cancer as a laughing matter:

DEADLINE: How did you become involved in this show?
JENNY BICKS: I read the pilot scripts of The Big C because I shared the agency that created the script with Darlene Hunt and really loved the writing on it. I had cancer myself, and I was really impressed and kind of jealous that it had found the exact right way of talking about cancer in this darkly comedic way. Darlene and I sat down and I told her I liked the show, and it turned out they needed someone to come in and retool the pilot and recast some roles. And then I stayed around to do the show.

DEADLINE: When you give a character 18 months to live, don’t you also shorten the life of your series?
BICKS: Well, we’ve never said that she’s going to die at the end, and I don’t say that to be cute. We have to be very aware of what’s going on in the medical community. She has melanoma, and as soon as we went on the air, all of these huge breakthroughs happened in late-stage melanoma. Which is great, but bad for us dramatically — we have to be true to that in our series. But I would also say that, as a showrunner, you are stupid if you aren’t thinking, how are we going to end the series? Are you are going to kill off characters or have them walk into the sunset? You should know ultimately what story you want to tell. Everyone’s show dies: we just know probably what ours is going to die of.

DEADLINE: Could her prognosis change if the show stays on the air?
BICKS: Each season is three months, and this fall is our second season, so she wouldn’t have to live a long time. If we’re lucky enough to have six seasons of the show, it will be 18 months of her life. And yet the irony is — and this is me on my soapbox — that for the first eight episodes, she hadn’t told anybody that she has cancer. We got such shit from people who could not understand. If you have some other disease, nobody
says you’re an asshole for not telling people. I think that’s a very interesting pushback that we got. But whenever you come up against death, people have very strong reactions.

DEADLINE: Even though your show is about cancer, it’s not ‘black comedy’.
BICKS: I think in some ways we are more truly optimistic, which is odd because we are about a woman who’s dying. Because our character is not saving lives but just trying to save her own life, you do feel for her. But I think we have to be careful to make her behavior understandable to those people who haven’t been sick or in a situation like that.

DEADLINE: How is The Big C different from this year’s other new TV comedies?
BICKS: To my mind, there seems to be seven interchangeable half-hours of shows on relationships that have oddly nebulous titles, like Mad Romantic Love Platonically. It feels like someone has taken an advice column and turned it into a show, versus having a distinct point of view. And no offense to anyone who developed those shows, but I think they didn’t end up breaking out because they were generic. This is where Showtime and HBO, other premium cable channels, and even non-premium cable channels, really started to get idiosyncratic with their programming. And that has fi nally started to have an influence on the networks. People are saying let’s go for a distinct voice or a distinct personality as opposed to, let’s try to mimic and make a hit. That’s promising.

DEADLINE: Of course, there also seems to be a critical backlash to quirky-for-the-sake-of-quirky characters on cable.
BICKS: It is a little much. We’ve hit our fill of manic depressive, bipolar detectives, and doctors with underlying drug problems. I think as writers we need to challenge ourselves now to keep our characters a little more real, but also create jeopardy for them. Cable’s quirky-for-the-sake-of-quirky shows and network’s bland relationship shows have to meet and have babies, and those babies would be the right combination. You’d have just enough uniqueness without it being just a crazy show.

DEADLINE: If this year’s Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy becomes a battle of the Showtime dark comedies, do you think you have a chance against Nurse Jackie?
BICKS: It’s not going to be an easy fi ght for us. But the point of this, for us, is not to win awards; I’m just excited to do the show and to tell what is considered to be a kind of groundbreaking story. And then, hey, if you add an Emmy to that—awesome.

  1. As someone who had cancer… I didn’t tell anyone for a long time, then I told 2 family members (not parents) and three friends (including my assistant), and that’s it. I wasn’t suppose to survive… I did… I still have told only 2-3 more people, I don’t know why… it’s a very difficult situation especially when you’re always considered the “strong one” to know you’ll have to comfort others who are upset about you being sick… I couldn’t go there…

    1. the show has begun with a bang -I have the 1st season and watch it all the time-have followed Laura and all of her works-am a huge fan in Nashville and a grandmother-she is so tremendous-i have voted and have put my picture on sho.com to contribute to the cancer society-the show is extremely well done-laughing -crying-and just feeling her pain-my vote is in-Blessings to the whole Big C actors and team

  2. My partner and I had to fight the studio and network to get her on our staff but were finally to give Jenny her first TV job, where she developed the chops that made her employable today.

    You go, girl! Be sure to mention us in your Emmy speech!

    1. And having worked under her myself as a young TV writer I can tell you and your partner this: she has more than paid it forward. This woman is so talented and even tempered and remains so kind and generous in spite of all the pressures of the job running a show. That next Emmy of hers will be most well-deserved and well-earned. She’s one of the few who actually gives a shit about training writers.

  3. Yes, breakthroughs have happened, but most advanced melanoma patients still die from their cancer. At the Melanoma Research Foundation we track this carefully and here is the situation: The drug approved in March doesn’t help 80% of people who take it and the other drug in the news helps about 30%, but only for a few months. Many patients hear the big news, only to find out the drugs won’t help them. Or they go on the drug with high hopes, only to have their cancer grow.

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