Amazon’s Catastrophe Is the Romantic Comedy of the Year

By
Catastrophe. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The romantic comedy of the year is a half-hour sitcom that debuted in England in January and is now streaming on Amazon Prime: Catastrophe. You’ll smile whenever you say the title; the show’s first season, a brisk six episodes, leaves you no other option, because it’s so damn likable. Created by and starring Sharon Horgan (Pulling) and comedian Rob Delaney, it’s about an American businessman named Rob (of course) and an Irish schoolteacher named Sharon (why not?) who conceive a baby during a weeklong affair in London, then decide to stay together and raise it. The series has all the basic elements you want from a romantic comedy: yearning, heat, kindness, selfishness, impulsive stupidity, grand gestures, sharp dialogue, and an endless series of obstacles for the lovers to navigate — some occurring naturally, others placed there by their own ignorance, stubbornness, or inability to see what’s in front of them. But Catastrophe isn’t content to ace the basics, as rare as that may be in an age of pathetically diminished rom-com expectations. It takes a key page from the playbooks of some of the great dramas of recent years and lets us look at a familiar situation through fresh eyes, by lifting it out of its usual context and depositing it in weird new terrain. The domestic situations of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Americans, Mad Men, and other dark dramas would have seemed quite familiar were it not for the alien context (gangsters, drug dealers, spies, an impostor hero), and, as strange as this might sound, Horgan and Delaney pull off a similar miracle here, by making their main characters a couple who enact the rituals and milestones of a lifelong relationship even though they’ve just met.

You’ve seen the story of a couple of intelligent, attractive people trying to keep their chemistry going over the long haul at least 10 gazillion times. But you haven’t seen such characters getting together as quickly as Rob and Sharon, and making so many momentous decisions so instinctively, and then coping with all the complications and surprises that pop up. Their wild week (actually six days) is covered in the first few minutes of the pilot, a whirl of banter and belly laughs and flailing legs. They don’t talk like funny sitcom characters; they talk like real people who happen to be funny, and who enjoy making each other laugh, and treat the challenge as another part of the courtship ritual. The revelation of Sharon’s pregnancy, a bomb-drop moment that most series would delay until the final scene of the pilot, happens almost exactly five minutes into the premiere, when Rob takes a phone call from Sharon during a maybe-date with a much younger woman and returns to their table looking as if somebody has smacked him in the gut with a folded stroller. Nine minutes in, Rob is back in London, sitting by Sharon’s bedside in a hospital while a nurse does an ultrasound, and then there’s a revelation that turns their already upside-down lives sideways — the first of many. There are usually several twists in an episode, some fairly minor, others so immense that they’d be hard for the characters to process even if they’d been together for years instead of … well, how long is it? Weeks? It’s all a blur. The score, by Oli Julian, is a series of musical wind sprints, with banjos and yodeling that evoke the opening ten minutes of Raising Arizona, a montage that packed so much information into ten minutes that it felt like a recap of a nonexistent prequel.

Through it all, Catastrophe serves up all the expected tropes of the romantic comedy (and life, really), including scenes that introduce valued but deeply irritating best friends and loving but resentful relatives (including Carrie Fisher as Rob’s mother, who has as many notes of exasperation as a piano has keys), and scenes where one or the other becomes distracted or bored and starts going out on dates that they insist aren’t dates, and moments where the mostly cheerful energy dissipates and Sharon and Rob become short-tempered and surly with each other. There are revelations about the characters’ pasts that cause more friction; a couple of them are disturbing and have to be seriously dealt with before Catastrophe can resume charming you. And as all of this is exploding across your little computer screen like a series of cherry bombs, you periodically have to remind yourself that these two self-selected life mates don’t really know each other — not as life mates are supposed to, in fiction or in life. Sometimes you forget this until one of them reminds the other, as Rob does when he chastises Sharon for not wanting him to unpack his clothes in her apartment: “You let me put my penis in your mouth, but you won’t let me put my T-shirts in your drawer?” “Please don’t rush me, Rob,” Sharon says.

After a while, the phrase “These two don’t know each other” sinks into the imagination and pours a concrete foundation and builds itself a house and hangs a hand-lettered sign on the front door that reads METAPHOR. Nobody really knows anyone. Nobody really knows him or herself. Not that well. We keep discovering our significant others, and rediscovering them, and coming to terms with them, and making hard decisions about whether we can handle more unpleasant surprises or make more concessions for the sake of domestic peace. Every other couple on the series is harboring secret fears and longings — and just plain secrets — that would appall their partner if exposed. Given all this, is it necessarily more sensible to take things slow? (Rob questions this notion in a monologue about the low divorce rates of couples in arranged marriages.) And is couple-hood really innately superior to flying solo, as pretty much every romantic comedy would have us believe? Every few minutes some other character is giving Sharon or Rob advice that means nada, because they aren’t Sharon or Rob, and because their own lives aren’t nearly as orderly, predictable, and safe as they seem to think. Authority figures (doctors, bosses, parents) keep sharing life lessons that have a “one size fits all” vibe; but what if one size doesn’t fit all, and what if all these authority figures are stupid or deluded? (“You know, they told my brother when he was 10 that he had polio, but it turns out he was just clumsy,” Rob tells Sharon.) Nobody knows anything. So what can you do? The “catastrophe” of Catastrophe isn’t the pregnancy or any other discrete event. It’s life itself. You race along and don’t look back and try to like the banjo music.

*This article appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.