I have a problem with the first season of the UK sitcom Catastrophe. It sets itself up as two people making the most of a difficult situation. Presumably a catastrophic situation, hence the title. Rob has unintentionally gotten Sharon pregnant; they decide to give it a go. It superficially resembles Knocked Up, the Judd Apatow comedy in which Seth Rogen unintentionally gets Katherine Heigl pregnant and they decide to give it a go. Knocked Up is indeed a catastrophe. She’s a woman with a promising career who behaves like an adult. He’s Hollywood’s typical manchild stoner out-of-shape slob loser whose shortcomings are entirely excused because he’s funny. Obviously, Hollywood says, he’ll make a great dad. Oh, and husband. Never mind what Heigl’s character could have gone on to do with her life, pregnant or not.
But whereas Knocked Up pretends it’s not a catastrophe, Catastrophe pretends it’s not a perfect match. But Rob and Sharon are as perfect a couple as you could ever hope to see on TV.
They’re the opposite of a catastrophe.
Misnomer aside, the real twist in Catastrophe is that they’re old enough to know better. This is a story about adults with adult jobs. These are people well beyond the sexual indiscretions and embarrassments that happen to twentysomethings. The pregnancy — and presumably the ensuing baby in the second season — will disrupt lives well along the way to being lived.
It’s an effective formula, and the first season takes the situation seriously enough. Pregnant women of a certain age are vulnerable to specific health risks. Adults accustomed to living alone can have a tough time learning to share their space. How will friends and family react? Who will relocate where? What happens with recent boyfriends and girlfriends? Is it worth bothering with the whole marriage thing at this point?
But here’s my problem with Catastrophe. Rob and Sharon are good for each other the moment they meet. They adjust perfectly. They seem like two people who have known each other for years. She’s a tough shell around a vulnerable soft center, and he orbits it like an attentive, kind, funny, deferential, and patient satellite. He’s everything you wouldn’t expect an American to be in a sitcom made outside the US. Watching Catastrophe, I can’t help but feel the real catastrophe would have been if she hadn’t gotten pregnant and they’d each gone on with their lives separately.
In fact, the contrived disagreement during the season finale lasts all of about three minutes, and it feels out of sorts with how they’ve interacted for the rest of the show. We’re supposed to chalk it up to hormones and exhaustion, but it feels like it was written because all romantic comedies need a crisis so the characters can move past it, proving to us they really love each other. I’m not buying it, Catastrophe. At least not during the first season. We’ll see how the second season goes.
The credit for the nagging sensation that these two people belong together goes to actors Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney. Really, Horgan deserves top billing. Her Sharon is such a vividly drawn character, and such a strong actor, that he sometimes comes across as arm candy. With her stately Julia Louis-Dreyfus face, her maddeningly sexy Irish lilt, and her acerbic wit, she’s a pleasure to the eye, ear, and sense of humor. Delany, on the other hand, is leading man comfort food. He’s a beefy version of Paul Schneider, with a Warbutonesque slab of face and a Prattish sincerity. It’s her world; he’s just impregnated it.
Most importantly, they click. The chemistry between them informs every moment they’re onscreen. It’s so perfect, it’s almost unnatural. Catastrophe is to sitcoms what intelligent design is to evolution: implausible and reassuring. But a corollary of this is that they’re a joy to watch. This is that couple that you want to hang out with. They’re kind to each other, and they’re fun. They say exactly the right thing at exactly the right moments and you’re glad to be there with them. It’s the complete opposite of You’re the Worst, in which the unlikely couple actually is a catastrophe because they’re so gratingly unlikeable. How can anyone bear to watch that show?
The actors channel Sharon and Rob flawlessly, and the reason is evident at the end of every episode:
There’s nothing quite so gratifying as seeing 1) talented actors, who are also 2) talented writers, who are also 3) self-aware enough to write for themselves, and who 4) have wrangled a deal in which they get to play the parts they write and write the parts they play. It’s rare that all four of these situations come together. Maybe it’s a UK thing, because the movie Sightseers comes to mind. Comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram wrote and played characters they’d been working on over the years, but to much darker effect; Sightseers probably should have been called Catastrophe. My favorite recent example is the devastatingly good Fleabag, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Although I heartily recommend Catastrophe, if you haven’t seen Fleabag yet, that should be your first order of business. It is the best thing on television since Louis for its wit, intimacy, and unflinching candor.
The supporting cast of Catastrophe has to live in the shadow of Horgan and Delany’s shining chemistry. That can’t be easy, so Ashley Jensen and Mark Bonnar play their foils. They are everything that Rob and Sharon aren’t: married, bitter, nidified. Deliciously Scottish (for an English production, Catastrophe sure is short of Englishmen). You might know Jensen from Ricky Gervais’ Extras, a show that pretended she was a homely wallflower. In Catastrophe, she gamely plays her usual self-deprecation, but this time as a character worthy of deprecation. Bonnar’s wry Scottish cunning is like an elite special forces operative trapped behind enemy lines, having given up hope of an extraction, waiting for the war to blow over. No one pulls grimly from a cigarette quite like Bonnar. And no one drops a c-bomb like someone with a Scottish accent.
It’s heartbreaking to see Carrie Fisher as Rob’s stateside mother, because she was obviously set up for long-term participation. But now all we’ll get is those few phone call scenes. I don’t mind so much that Fisher will never play an aged Princess Leia again. Her work there was done. But she would have been a valuable part of the Catastrophe cast. The story arc felt like it was building to an epic Horgan/Fisher meeting.
Carrie Fisher also would have given more weight to Rob’s side of the story. The first season feels very Sharon-centric, which isn’t a bad thing. We are, after all, on her home turf. But Rob can seem a bit too good to be true, more a woman’s idealized partner than a real character. The first episode implies that he’s a womanizer with a girl in every port. He has Sharon’s number on his phone as “London sex”. We see this while he’s trying to seduce an intern from his office. But that’s the first part of the first episode, and it’s the last inkling we get that he’s anything other than a devoted serial monogamist. A picture perfect husband straight out of a Sears catalog.
But that’s Catastrophe for you. It’s not interested in grit. It’s a reassuring sitcom. Modern Family for adults. “We’re reasonably good people,” Rob says early on, “so we could probably do this and not fuck the kid up too horribly.” A bit of an understatement. What kid wouldn’t want these two loving people, who are such a joy to be around, for parents? For a series with such droll British humor, there isn’t an ounce of cynicism in Catastrophe. And these days, lack of cynicism is a precious commodity.
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You can start watching Catastrophe on Amazon.com Prime here: Episode 1