* THE BIG C: HEREAFTER. 10 p.m. Monday, Showtime.

WHEN "THE BIG C" premiered on Showtime in the summer of 2010, I wasn't exactly in the mood for a show about a woman with terminal melanoma.

I'd recently lost my mother, slowly, but also of course much too fast, to a different cancer. I admired Laura Linney's performance, but I was often impatient with the show, which in the interest of showing her character, Cathy, as someone who was living, not just dying, sometimes made cancer seem like a bit more fun than it probably is for most people. At least those people whose lives - pre- or post-diagnosis - aren't likely to include affairs with guys who look like Idris Elba, or cute doctors (Reid Scott) who develop crushes on them.

But I always hoped "The Big C" was headed somewhere interesting, and thanks to Showtime, which renewed it for four final one-hour episodes that begin Monday, it's gotten there.

And as the title "The Big C: Hereafter" probably indicates, we're not talking Disney World.

For a medium that sometimes seems consumed with death, television doesn't traffic much with dying people. That may be because by the time most of us begin to accept that no one's getting out of this alive, we're pushing the age at which, for Nielsen ratings purposes, we're already considered dead.

Or because, as serial killers go, cancer's considerably less colorful than the chilly gourmet of NBC's "Hannibal" or the code-driven blood-spatter specialist of Showtime's "Dexter."

But whether you believe that death is another country or the last stop on the train to oblivion, spending time with the dying can be a profound experience.

And not always a crushingly sad one. And occasionally - if you're lucky enough to come from a family like mine - it can even be funny.

From its very first scene, "Hereafter" manages to capture the sense those of us being left behind sometimes get; that the person going already has a foot planted somewhere else.

But it also, repeatedly, hones in on the joy that can hit unexpectedly at even the worst moments.

As someone who cries at Hallmark commercials, I can say I only teared up a few times over the course of the four hours of "Hereafter," and each time, it involved a scene with Cathy's son, Adam (Gabriel Basso). I defy any mother out there to do better.

Basso's more than held his own with "The Big C" cast, which is saying something on a show that's always had big-name guest stars and whose regulars include Linney, Oliver Platt as Cathy's husband, Paul, John Benjamin Hickey as her eccentric brother, Sean, and Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious") as Andrea, a former student Cathy has informally adopted.

This season's guest stars include Alan Alda as Cathy's brusque oncologist, designer Isaac Mizrahi as Andrea's fashion-design teacher, Brian Dennehy as Cathy's father and Kathy Najimy as a therapist.

The one-hour format seems to work better for the show than the half-hour, but makes it no less (or more) of a comedy than it was before.

Best of all, it doesn't feel like the end of a losing fight, which is how dying of cancer, or any long illness, is too often described.

Cathy, who's always wanted to control everything, will find that there are things beyond her control, including the speed of her dying.

Some endings come slowly, but also much too fast.

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