Primetime battles cancer -- Being on TV may be hazardous to your health

The epidemic of TV characters contracting cancer has been spreading like, well, a cancer. The disease has struck before — Melrose Place‘s Heather Locklear was afflicted for about five minutes, and between Cigarette Smoking Man and Scully’s alien illness, it’s been an X-Files leitmotif. But lately it seems everyone’s facing the Big C: Lauren Bacall checked into Chicago Hope with a brain tumor; even Spin City‘s Michael J. Fox had a prostate scare.

Three series have grappled with the topic consistently: Party of Five, NYPD Blue, and Murphy Brown. And just as some patients rise to the challenge while others collapse, this plot has brought out the best in Party and Blue — and the worst in Murphy.

Party‘s heart has always been the complex relationship between brothers Charlie (Matthew Fox) and Bailey (Scott Wolf). Even though Charlie’s older he was the less responsible one — until Bailey became an alcoholic, forcing Charlie to grow up and take care of his orphaned siblings. Yet after Charlie was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, the newly sober Bailey picked up the slack, quitting college to run the family restaurant.

This latest crisis gave Fox an opportunity to do some of his strongest work. A self-absorbed patient, Charlie couldn’t deal with the details of day-to-day life. Now that he’s healthy, he’s adopted a carpe diem mentality that includes sleeping with a ditsy stripper (Jennifer Aspen) and streaking his hair blond. Like the parents’ passing and Bailey’s drinking problem, Charlie’s near-death experience promises to add layers of meaning to Party‘s nuanced plotlines for many seasons.

Although the Fox network tried to tease viewers into thinking Charlie might die, we knew he’d pull through. The same holds true for Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz, who just had his prostate removed on Blue. With Jimmy Smits splitting next season, there’s no way the show could lose the even more valuable Franz. But guessing the probable outcome hasn’t lessened the impact of Sipowicz’s struggle.

Always a volatile character, Sipowicz has been on a Tilt-A-Whirl of mood swings. The recovering alcoholic has been paranoid he’ll get hooked on pain medication, terrified he won’t see his son grow up, and hostile to the doctors who, he’s convinced, want to kill him. Franz hasn’t been afraid to appear naked emotionally (though not literally — he’s kept his hospital gown closed, unlike in City of Angels). His vulnerable performance could win the actor a fourth Emmy.

Murphy‘s Candice Bergen also has a fistful of Emmys, but that doesn’t mean she’s a great actress. Her character’s battle with breast cancer has only accentuated Bergen’s woodenness. All she’s mustered is a mild case of crankiness — the same symptom she exhibited for the series’ cancer-free first nine seasons.

It hasn’t helped that the scripts have seesawed from sappier-than-a-soap melodramatics (”I’m not gonna let this thing beat me!”) to sickly one-liners (”Cancer’s like the bathroom at the bus station — there’s not a damn thing that’s good about it”). Although the already-overhyped May 18 series finale (in which Murphy dreams she’s in heaven) should cure the sitcom’s ratings ills, CBS should’ve mercy-killed Murphy long ago.