The last scene of the first season of Catastrophe seems to undermine much of what came before it. The six-episode series follows the courtship-in-reverse of Rob Norris (Rob Delaney) and Sharon Morris (Sharon Horgan) as they hook up in London, discover later that Sharon is pregnant, and prepare to spend the rest of their lives together despite barely knowing each other. As the season comes to a close, the impact of Rob and Sharon’s hasty decisions and the accelerated timeline of their relationship dawns on them. What was funny and charming turns caustic and contentious.
The scene ends with a joke, returning the show to its comedic safety net. But Catastrophe succeeds precisely because it embraces the drama inherent in its premise. As funny and filthy as if often is, the show’s perspective on the tropes of romantic comedy is fresh and sophisticated without being naive. Rob is approaching middle age without a career he’s passionate about or a home life he’s proud of. Sharon is stable in her job but wants more out of her personal life. Hooking up with a sexy stranger doesn’t solve these problems, and a surprise pregnancy doesn’t clarify them. By season’s end, things are more confusing than ever.
And also more intriguing to the viewer. Catastrophe is among the more charming recent examples of the television romantic comedy, in which two people fall in love and deal with the complications of attraction over a season or series’ worth of episodes. These shows often fill out the cast with wacky supporting players, who provide color and reinforce the normalcy and decency of the central pair. I’m thinking of Bent, A to Z, Manhattan Love Story and Selfie, among others. (The only one of those worth seeking out is Bent, which might have grown into a classic if NBC had let it run more than six episodes doled out over three weeks.)
Catastrophe is better than those shows for several reasons. Its leads are older and their worldviews wiser. Rob and Sharon don’t fall head over heels in the conventional sense. Their relationship is both pragmatic and hopeful, an attempt to recapture the chemistry of their initial hookup and to provide for the future of their child. The show mines comedy from their struggles to connect to each other, not from pregnancy-fueled pratfalls or wacky misunderstandings. (In one episode, Rob comes home to find out that Sharon knows something about him that he didn’t tell her, and it seems to be going down a classic sitcom road, until Sharon’s anger turns out to be a prank.)
The supporting players, grating distractions on other shows, emerge as fully fleshed-out weirdos, from the buttoned-up e-cig addict Chris (Mark Bonnar) and his judgmental wife Fran (Ashley Jensen) to the couple’s bemused doctor Harries (Tobias Menzies). Princess Leia herself literally phones in a few scenes as Rob’s feisty mother. Jonathan Forbes hams it up as Rob’s American acquaintance Fergal, who proves to be quite the nuisance. The show’s world has room to grow, but it’s not confined to the central couple.
And the dynamic between Rob and Sharon, undoubtedly inspired by the dynamic between Delaney and Horgan in real life, rarely falls into predictable rhythms or gender norms. Rob is friendless and jobless in England, while Sharon has friends and a job but still craves something more, or at least a better version of the life she’s supposed to be enjoying. Catastrophe doesn’t force the idea that these two are meant for each other, which is right, because maybe they’re not.
And maybe they won’t be when Catastrophe returns for a second season (soon, please). The last scene of the finale is ominous. Perhaps a bit too much so – the show could have planted a few more seeds in the earlier episodes to make the blow-up less of a surprise. But in its way, that scene is true to the show’s tone. Rob and Sharon were too busy cracking jokes to notice the drama creeping up behind them. Thankfully the show doesn’t fall into the same trap.