Brow Beat

Amazon’s Catastrophe Blows Up All of the Sitcom’s Lamest Romantic Clichés

Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime

Catastrophe is the little show that could. It’s just six episodes, focuses very narrowly on one relationship, and airs on Amazon, which, despite being the home of Transparent, remains pretty far down the ever-growing list of must-see original content providers. And yet Catastrophe is hilarious, dirty, quick, and very satisfying—not unlike the sex lives of its protagonists.

Catastrophe stars its two creators, Rob Delaney, of Twitter fame, as Rob, an American ad-man, and Sharon Horgan, an Irish actress who has appeared in such excellent British comedies as Free Agents and Pulling, as Sharon, an Irish school teacher. The two meet in London, have sex for a week, and part. “I will remember you as a sturdy love-maker with a massive chin,” Sharon compliments Rob on their last day together. And then Sharon gets pregnant. Rob flies to London and, suddenly, the two strangers—“friendly acquaintances,” Rob counters—are a couple preparing for a child.

If this set-up sounds like boilerplate sitcom-ery, Catastrophe makes it fresh and specific: It doesn’t do broad, it does characters. Rob and Sharon quickly decide to have the baby—not (only) because this is TV and long-term plots and politics demand babies, not abortions, but because Sharon is old. And this doesn’t go unsaid. “Well, how old are you?” Rob asks Sharon, trying to be nice about it, as they’re figuring out their plans. Sharon looks aghast, but she gets it. It’s this “geriatric pregnancy” or it is likely none at all.

Catastrophe proceeds to side-step the common and dunderheaded cliché about sitcom love: that the men and women involved actually hate each other. So many shows about long term couples pre-suppose that coupledom is a slog, usually sexless, that you get through by rolling your eyes at your partner. Rob and Sharon do plenty of eye-rolling, but they also really like each other (and having sex with each other), even if it’s almost against their will. Coming back from a visit to Boston, Sharon asks Rob if he missed her. “It made me mad how much I missed you,” he says, and that’s the couple’s emotional register—slightly annoyed at how much they like each other, watching, a little puzzled, as their hearts make a terrifying play for love and happiness. (This also describes the great FX romantic comedy You’re the Worst: a little hesitance goes a long way.)

Of the two, Sharon is the tougher cookie. She’s negative, anxious, and has lots of abrupt, inconvenient feelings, but this never feels like a collection of qualities meant to render her “unlikable.” She’s a grown woman with a charmingly bad attitude that she uses to protect her squishy heart. She’s not sweet or easygoing, but she is an ideal bantering partner, smart, exhausting, and invigorating all at once, utterly unconcerned with being nice. When the couple visit Sharon’s annoying frenemies, Rob ends up in a screaming fight with the wife about alternative medicine. (The husband, played by the natty Mark Bonnar, chomping on a e-cigarette, is so wonderfully smooth and weird, it always feels like he has just stepped into the scene from some other, very good sitcom of which he is the star.) The wife is a “healer” and Rob, worried about the pre-cancer Sharon just learned of at the doctor, enthusiastically loses it on her. You can see how Sharon’s distaste for the wife has egged Rob on to combustible, nasty heights, and how fun and freeing that can be. Sharon has nothing nice to say, and all he wants to do is go sit by her.

At the same time, Sharon is touched that Rob would stand up for her. She’s moved by his sweetness, and the sardonic, strapping, smutty mind it comes along with. As the show flies by—it’s just six episodes—you can see Sharon acclimating to the idea of having someone to depend on. Catastrophe is always very funny, but it begins to sprinkle in more serious beats as it races on. Those moments never tip the tone over into Very Special Episode territory, but they do a deft job of illustrating the further perks of a long-term relationship: not just laughter and sex but a partner who will sit with you on the floor of a grocery store when you get news from the doctor. Sharon and Rob both needed a little bad luck to allow themselves to get so close to someone; sometimes it’s the nastier things in life that bring the most joy.