The fourth -- and final -- season of Showtime's cancer dramedy "The Big C" is subtitled "Hereafter." It is made up of four one-hour episodes that wrap up the story of cancer patient Cathy (Laura Linney) and her extended family.
Since Cathy's cancer is terminal, it's no great secret where the series is heading -- whether or not it reaches the expected conclusion, viewers will have to watch and see. The path "The Big C" (11 p.m. Monday) takes is fairly predictable and unsurprising, but that doesn't mean these last four hours aren't occasionally heartfelt.
Through her cancer drama, Cathy has grown in her self-awareness. She's still sometimes a selfish, unlikable person -- most notably in a scene where she drives like a maniac with all those she loves in the car with her just because she wants one last joy ride -- but much less often than in the past.
In these final episodes, she's much more concerned about those around her than she is herself. She turns into a bit of a control freak, trying to set her husband, Paul (Oliver Platt), up on dates even though she's not dead yet. She prods her brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), to visit a dermatologist for a skin-cancer check. She encourages her former student Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) to pursue her fashion-design career. And most of all, Cathy wants to see her son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), graduate from high school.
It's this last relationship -- between Cathy and Adam --that grew to form the heart of the series. These last episodes of "The Big C" spend time with all of the show's characters, but the program is at its most touching when the focus is on mother and son. Their relationship reaches its apex in the final, fourth episode, which brings the series to a somewhat abrupt (but realistic) and unremarkable conclusion. It's not an ending that will linger in the memories of TV fans -- the recent funeral for J.R. Ewing on "Dallas" made me more verklempt -- but it does offer one last "Big C"-appropriate opportunity for Cathy's infectious, joy-filled, life-loving smile to beam from Linney's face.
The big question with "The Big C" is the change in format from half-hour to hourlong. Why not eight half-hour episodes rather than four one-hours? Producers didn't address that at a January press conference, but my guess is it was a financial decision, particularly given that "The Big C" was not a lock for renewal.
Tonally, "The Big C" hasn't changed with its new running time. The show has always been more of a character-driven drama with moments of humor than it's been an out-and-out comedy.
''I don't think any of us feel like the show fundamentally changed its DNA," said executive producer Jenny Bicks at a January press conference. "It allowed us to breathe a little more. We had found, in the half-hour format, that we were sometimes having to rush moments just purely to make our half-hour-format time. And now we actually have had a chance to let both the comedy and the drama breathe a little bit more. So that's been a really lovely thing for us and surprisingly easy for us to make the transition. I think it lives very easily in the one-hour form."
As for the final season's subtitle -- "Hereafter" -- Bicks said it was based on a Buddhist concept the show explored.
''The purpose for us of this title was really to speak about how as everybody's lived and we're each dying every day. And as you die, you've lived. So there's a yin-yang to it," she said. "We're both here now and we'll all be dead at some point."
Regarding the series' last scene, Bicks aptly describes it without giving away the ending: "The final scene of the series will be very nostalgic for viewers of the show, because we reintroduce ideas --visual elements --that we've played with throughout the course of the series. So I think it's a visually stunning moment, and a very happy moment, too."