Catastrophe, the Amazon show about what happens to two near-strangers who get pregnant and have a baby together, quickly solidified its rep as the most charming show on either side of the pond. Created by and starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, the series jolts along so quickly you can almost hear the whooshing sound, but its frenetic pace does have one major drawback. At only six episodes a season, it ends just as you were getting started. Fortunately, if you like Catastrophe, there’s more where that came from. Before teaming up with Delaney, Horgan had her own show, Pulling (available on iTunes), a spiritual sibling to Catastrophe, if also a harder, more mournful beast. The women-fronted BBC comedy, which aired two seasons (also six episodes apiece) and a special between 2006 and 2009, is well worth revisiting, both as a Catastrophe companion piece and on its own terms. Here’s why.
Pulling is Catastrophe’s spiritual prequel. Both Catastrophe and Pulling kick off with bold life decisions: Catastrophe’s Sharon decides to have a child with a man she hardly knows, while Pulling’s Donna (Horgan) calls off her wedding and the five-year relationship that came with it. Where Catastrophe celebrates the expediency of embracing happiness, however chaotic, Pulling is murkier territory. Initially, Donna’s breakup with her dullard fiancé, Karl (Cavan Clerkin), reads as her bravely rejecting complacency, but the series upends that assumption as Donna attempts to create a quote-unquote better life. Whether faking her way through a more sophisticated relationship or holding on to career aspirations that are bigger than her qualifications (all the while trying to keep Karl on a worshipful hook), Donna’s discontent unveils itself as the potential product of absurdly mismanaged expectations. Like Catastrophe, part of what makes Pulling so compelling is the integrity that comes with its protagonist’s refusal to change herself, instead demanding that the people in her life meet her where she lives.
Pulling beat the current comedy boon to the revelation that women can be unlikable. There’s been a lot of recent praise for characters like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca, You’re the Worst’s Gretchen, and, further back, the girls of Girls, women who can act in ways that are mean, selfish, or withdrawn without necessarily being branded as mean, selfish, or withdrawn people. Donna’s friends, the spiky Karen (Tanya Frank) and the guileless Louise (Rebekah Staton), round out Pulling’s cast — whether displaying Donna’s emotional manipulation of Karl, Karen’s toxic self-destruction, Louise’s simmering contempt, or the friends’ constant mutual judgment, Pulling never pulls back from or excuses its characters’ behavior, but it always places them within a sympathetic context. On Pulling, the fact that everyone sucks is a given.
Its depiction of single life is decidedly unromantic. Pulling is primarily about three single women, but it never becomes a dating show. That’s an impressive feat, because as indicated by the show’s title (British slang for hooking up), the women on Pulling date … a lot. With its simultaneous defense of singledom and discomfort with being alone, Pulling’s dating scene often recalls Sex and the City, but it functions absent that show’s rom-com structure. Between anonymous sex, awkward dates, and co-dependent relationships, there’s not an episode that fails to touch on romantic entanglements. Yet relationships are just one of the many messes of the women’s non-delineated lives. And on Pulling, dating is never just the thing a character is doing — it’s always an expression of something trickier.
Karl belongs in the pantheon of TV sad sacks. Jilted by Donna, Karl is initially such a dopey goon that he actually vomits while pleading with her not to leave. But as Pulling develops, Karl is revealed to be of the saddest species of sad sack, the kind keenly aware of how pathetic he is. From there, he unfurls into one of the show’s most compelling characters. He is both depressed by Donna’s leaving him and helpless to claim she should have done otherwise. And yet, in Donna’s subsequent attempts to cling to their comfortable connection, Karl is defiantly protective of his self-respect, reflecting a dignity claimed by no one else in the show.
Sharon Horgan is really great. It’s not surprising that Horgan’s own words come so naturally to her, but that doesn’t fully explain the laserlike precision with which she directs them. Donna says some really delusional junk. In one episode, her kabob is stolen practically from between her teeth, and she compares the violation to the murder of an old woman. But the miracle of Horgan is that she speaks even this absurdity with great conviction, so much so that you often find yourself doubting why you doubt her.