Cathy Jamison is poised to become the most beloved TV character from Minnesota since Mary Richards, but there's a major difference between those past and future icons: Love is not all around Cathy, and she's not going to make it after all.

"The Big C," a heartbreaking, hilarious dramedy that debuts Monday on Showtime, is about a mother with Stage 4 melanoma, a diagnosis that forces her to face her mortality and the realization that she's spent her 42 years on Earth as a drip. Not exactly the blueprint for outrageous comedy, but it works, thanks in no small part to star Laura Linney, who is so moving, so committed to the lead role that you can't help but believe you're watching the greatest actress of her generation in a signature performance.

"I was attracted to the fact that the show was taken from the viewpoint of stripping away humanity to the bare bones, and that's where real comedy for me comes from -- when life is so frightening, so absurd and yet so primal," Linney said. "I think it's all different kinds of humor, out of surrender, fear, anxiety, joy and love."

Linney has a history of playing women who use biting humor to keep from slipping off the ledge, most notably in the films "The Savages," "You Can Count on Me" and "The Squid and the Whale," but "Big C" offers her the chance to face the ultimate crisis -- her death -- with little support around her, in part because she doesn't tell anyone that she's a goner.

Her husband, a man-boy played by Oliver Platt, appears to have learned about romance through Playboy's joke page. Her teenage son's pranks are so cruel that even Ashton Kutcher would ground him for a month. Her homeless brother tags her a "closed system. Shut down."

So how does Cathy respond?

By building a pool in her backyard that's only slightly larger than a bathtub. By kicking her husband out of the house and flashing her doctor. By shooting her son's school bus with a paint gun and dragging him out of his seat. By doing cartwheels down the empty hallway of the school where she teaches. By telling a troubled student, played by "Precious" star Gabourey Sidibe, that she can't be both fat and mean. By walking out of couples therapy because she has the hankering for a vanilla latte. By switching her dinner diet to liquor and desserts.

And that's just in the first three episodes.

"This is a woman who doesn't really know who she is, and she has the opportunity to find out, and she's going to take it," Linney said. "She's someone who has been functioning very, very well but hasn't really been living, so there's a huge growth spurt throughout this whole experience."

Theater of seasons

It's not just kismet that her journey is set in the Twin Cities. The show's creator, Darlene Hunt -- a veteran sitcom actress who hails from Kentucky -- has spent considerable time in Minneapolis, where her husband's sister lives, and thought it would be an ideal setting.

"It had to be a city with distinct seasons, because it's about a woman going through the seasons of life. Setting it in L.A. definitely wouldn't do it," said Hunt.

She plans each 13-episode season of the series to reflect one of the four seasons, starting with summer. Producers won't say which town they used as a model, but think Edina, or St. Paul.

Filming in Minnesota, however, wasn't an option because Linney wanted to work in Connecticut, where her family resides. The actress and Oscar winner Bill Condon, who directed the pilot episode, did make a three-day visit to the Twin Cities last fall to do research. (Sharp-eyed viewers of Monday's episode will get a giggle out of a scene set in a re-created version of Porky's drive-in in St. Paul -- plus the teenage son sports a hockey T-shirt from Wausau, Wis.).

"The first day I was there, I didn't quite have my bearings," said Linney, who had never been to the Twin Cities. "But the second and third day I realized, 'Oh, this is a very, very cool place.' The arts are so prominent and, for someone like me, that made my heart sing.

"I really got a sense of how the city interacts with nature in ways you don't think it's going to, in terms of walking, running, boating and how the lakes and land interact with each other."

The show has some quintessential Minnesota touches, including an episode that revolves around Cathy trying to get someone to share a bicycle-built-for-two and a Scandinavian neighbor who guards her privacy. But the series primarily deals with themes that any human can identify with, which is why "The Big C" may just be the most daring, yet relatable series on TV.

"It's a show for everybody, because we're all living on borrowed time," Hunt said. "My way into the show was because I had just had my first baby and there's nothing that makes you confront your own mortality more than having children. I kept looking at her and wanting to be with her the rest of her life and realizing that I wouldn't be able to."

Cathy Jamison won't be with us for long -- producers promise they won't pull punches just to keep the show on the air -- but viewers should count their blessings that her character will spend her final months, and newfound independence, with all of us. • 612-673-7431