Sharon Horgan (left) and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe.
Photo: Ed Miller
Right around this time last year, I put out my plea to the universe: Send me TV rom-coms, I begged. And it seems that my prayers have been answered and then some. Amazon’s new six-episode series Catastrophe is a powerfully charming rom-com in all the best ways (including being British). It’s also an example of how little premise good comedy actually needs: Specificity, yes; joy, yes; charisma and wit and smarts, yes. He’s Rob, she’s Sharon. And that’s kind of it. Go.
Rob here is comedian and author Rob Delaney, and Sharon is comedian and actress Sharon Horgan (you might recognize her from Pulling, which she also created). The two are the stars and creators of this series; he plays an American adman, she an Irish schoolteacher living in London. What starts as a one-night stand turns into a week-long fling — turns into something more when she discovers she’s pregnant. Some of the surrounding characters feel a little sitcom-y, but Rob and Sharon absolutely do not. They’re not kooky or particularly gifted or extreme in any way, but they’re very themselves. Catastrophe’s characters each speak in their own specific voices; you’d know who was who in a script even if the names had been erased. Rob is bright and ebullient — even if he’s often saying lewd or inappropriate things, they’re delivered with a smile and booming voice. Sharon’s self-assured but a little bit selfish, or at least prone to saying unkind things even as she seems like a kind person. The warmth of these portrayals cannot be overstated, and the ease and rapport between the characters is electric and alive without being cheap or nauseating.
How do you make a whole show that’s about regular people? How does something so low-concept feel so substantial? The answer here and in most things is intimacy. I don’t look at my friends and think, what a bunch of regular folk are we! even though of course we are. These people are special to me, and I see their specific beauty and gifts, but to everyone else we’re all just other stinky meat sacks taking up seats on the subway. Catastrophe crawls all the way in, getting way up close, close enough that Rob and Sharon don’t feel like regular people so much as our people. I love them. I am in love with them. I want to be them, be with them, maybe be their baby? Anything to extend our relationship beyond the six episodes.
The show’s weakest moments come when the focus shifts to other characters, like Sharon’s bawdy friend from childhood, or Rob’s douche-bro womanizing pal. It can be a little bit shticky, especially since they’re so much less interesting than our central couple. The other moment that feels shoehorned in comes during a big fight — a fight that feels off, because these people don’t seem like they’d have a fight like that. Not because they’re so goo-goo-ga-ga in love (they’re not, really), or because they’re such saints (no again), but because they’re grown-ups. These are people who are fully hatched, who know themselves well, who know what they like and what they’re about. It feels like a miracle to watch a show that’s about adulthood that isn’t bitter or cynical or anxiety-inducing or depressing. Look, adulthood is the fucking pits, but sometimes it feels like every episode of Louie is just making it worse. Like, now we all have to have missing-penis nightmares? Catastrophe can be biting and certainly naughty, but there’s a thread of hopefulness in it, too, a sense that falling in love isn’t some miracle; sometimes it’s a decision you can make and be happy with. I liked this show so much I cried. It made me that happy.
There are so many shows right now driven by big concepts or giant characters: Welp, it’s this massive epic spanning a fantasy world similar to Earth. Okay, so she’s the president, and everyone talks super fast and super filthy. There’s this group of friends, and they’re the biggest nerds ever. Think of a dad, but he’s like, so dumb! There’s nothing wrong with those setups, and premise isn’t a vice. But the more involved the concept, the more rigid a show has to be. Catastrophe doesn’t feel rigid at all, which is why it’s easy to buy into Sharon and Rob’s budding relationship: They get along well, they’re both stable people, why not see where things go? Why not be generous and reliable? Why not be supportive? Maybe that’s how good things happen. Just maybe.