Catastrophe Season Two’s Biggest Challenge: How to Top Season One?

Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan. Photo: Ed Miller/Amazon

Catastrophe’s great strength in season one was the surprise factor: It barreled out of the gate determined to upend any expectations people might carry into it, and for the most part it succeeded. The biggest challenge in season two becomes: How to top this? I don’t think the show does top itself in its sophomore outing, which can currently be viewed through Amazon Prime. But that’s not a letdown, all things considered: I doubt any series could have done such a thing. It’s that old record-industry conundrum all over again, in a different medium: You have years to think about and eventually execute your first album but only six months to make your second.  

I’m skirting the edges of what happens here in case you haven’t watched all of season two of Catastrophe. If you have, or if you don’t mind losing the element of surprise, keep reading. Otherwise, you may want to check out of this review after this paragraph ends and come back to it later, preferably after watching all six episodes. Bottom line: Televised stories about familiar, universal situations like romantic relationships generally can’t stay focused on the main couple forever, because even if the viewers adore them, they sometimes need a break from them, especially if they’re fundamentally well-matched and happy, as these two are; so you have to flesh out the supporting players and introduce new wrinkles into the main relationship. That’s more or less what Catastrophe does this time out, with varying degrees of success, but always with enough wit and energy that you’ll want to keep watching even if what’s onscreen is not as blazingly fresh as what you saw last time.

Now, back to that surprise thing: We didn’t expect co-creators, co-writers, and co-stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney to make such an original and convincing couple. We didn’t expect this show, indeed any sitcom, to tell a story so unconventionally. In its first episode, Catastrophe tore through what might have been season one of another sitcom. It compressed a volcanically sexual meet-cute between an American and an Irish Londoner and its unintended consequence — pregnancy — into the space of a few briskly edited minutes (the announcement would’ve been the logical place to end a hypothetical first season of an alternate-universe Catastrophe: close-up of one of the actors’ terrified faces; cut to black; roll credits).

Then, it spent the rest of season one following Sharon (Horgan) and Rob (Delaney) as they committed to having and raising a child. It showed Sharon adapting to the idea of being a mother, the Boston ad man Rob relocating to London after severing most of his old ties, and both partners struggling to adapt to their new reality: Rob looking for a new job; Sharon struggling to continue as a schoolteacher despite the physical and emotional burdens pregnancy brings; Sharon worrying about the possibility of medical complications, including cancer and the possibility of a “geriatric pregnancy” (what a brutal term); both partners coping with how their couple-hood altered their relationships with relatives and friends. Season one ended with what seemed (to this viewer anyway) a pretty unconvincing fight that was forcibly resolved when Sharon’s water broke.

The show’s formal masterstroke happens at the end of the pre-credits scene of the season-two premiere: A very pregnant Sharon banters and argues with Rob in bed while watching TV, and we don’t grasp exactly where we are in the timeline until their son, now a toddler, appears in the doorway. So the timeline has jumped forward a couple of years. Now Sharon and Rob are married, Sharon is taking time off from school to be a mom. Rob is dealing with a boring workplace enlivened only by a flirtation with a model-gorgeous French co-worker, Olivia (Emmanuelle Bouaziz), who says she wants to suck his cock until he passes out, then reports Rob for sexual harassment after he clumsily outlines the conditions under which he’d have an affair with her, by way of explaining why he won’t. 

This latter subplot is the only major one in season two that feels retrograde and ugly: Olivia has no character to play, really, so her behavior inadvertently seems to confirm the self-serving and sexist urban legend that reports of workplace harassment (like rape, according to this mentality) are things that happen when a woman decides that she needs to punish or humiliate a male co-worker. The cavalier disposal of the couple’s suddenly dead mutt is also, as they say, problematic. It casts a pall over what had otherwise been a great episode about a party that’s meant to solve problems but instead creates more of them, and ultimately becomes an endurance test that reduces Sharon to tears. I would never claim that a pet’s death should be off-limits as a subject for comedy, but it’s all about context, and the context seemed miscalculated here: Rob and Sharon’s no-big-deal attitude just makes them seem like heartless assholes, which surely was not the intent of this usually warm and empathetic show, and the tone of the shot of Rob stuffing a dog’s corpse into a garbage can (along with crib sheets soiled by their new baby) implies that everyone watching will shrug it off, too — when many of them won’t.

Much sharper are the scenes where Sharon struggles to fit into upper-middle-class, stay-at-home mom culture, which is way too blandly Kum-bay-a for somebody as gleefully abrasive as Sharon. Few shows about parenting are so honest about the resentment that parents feel toward their responsibilities: Suddenly your life isn’t entirely yours anymore, and that can really sting. Sharon’s chemistry with Rob, which thankfully persists throughout season two despite the couple’s various troubles, keeps the energy level high, even when the show’s subplots (like Mark Bonnar’s Chris exploring his sexuality in nightclubs and with a prostitute, and his estranged wife Fran, played by Ashley Jensen, clumsily attempting to date) aren’t quite doing it for you. Rob and Sharon’s banter and sexual attraction has the electrical charge you’d encounter in a relationship between partners in real life: people whose union is a mystery to friends and family but who, for whatever mysterious reason, just seem to click. The scene at the cinema where Rob confronts a woman who made Sharon feel ostracized is one of the best crackpot-romantic moments of the year so far, the posh 21st-century urban equivalent of a knight on Game of Thrones winning a warrior queen’s heart by bringing her the severed head of her most hated enemy. (The closing shot of their intertwined hands is perfection.)

There’s a lot of that sort of thing in season two of Catastrophe, thankfully, plus marvelous details about life in a household with young children that could only have come from personal experience or (though it seems strange to use the word in a review of a sitcom) reporting, such as the bit where Rob and Sharon are having sex and they hear their new baby cry, and he just keeps going rather than interrupting the moment to check on the child. “I know what you’re thinking,” he tells her, “but it’s just better for everyone if I just finish this off.”

Their Paris trip is supposed to be rejuvenating but turns into another, smaller catastrophe, of the sort that provides the show with its operative metaphor; many modern parents will laugh at the sound of the breast-milk pump that the couple bought from quizzical French pharmacists to replace the one she forgot to pack in London. It’s an audio cue that amounts to instant birth control for some. The episode’s sad accumulation of mishaps finally tips over at the end, with Rob reassuring Sharon that this is still a memorable interlude, though perhaps not in the way they hoped it would be. This pivotal conversation gives Horgan, Delaney, and director Ben Taylor a chance to stage one of the show’s many meaningfully composed images: They’re sitting at a sidewalk café table on a street corner right where a steep hill begins, and the framing makes it seem as if they’re sitting on the edge of a cliff with no guardrail. The image captures their relationship, and also the show’s attitude toward relationships generally, and life: There are abysses everywhere, and you just have to decide not to look down.