The nice thing about a six-episode season is that you’re less likely to hit a sophomore slump. In fact, if Amazon’s Catastrophe is any indication, you may end up outdoing yourself.
Season one of the BBC import, which stars (and is co-written by) American comedian Rob Delaney and Irish writer/actress Sharon Horgan, chronicled the not-quite-honeymoon period of Rob Norris (Delaney) and Sharon Morris (Horgan) after an accidental pregnancy. Complications, some external but mostly personality-driven, beset the couple along the way. Comedy and pathos and dick jokes ensued. That six-episode run finished on what felt like a cliffhanger; in the middle of a relationship-threatening row (one of many), Sharon goes into labor.
Rather than revisiting that cliff, season two constructs a bridge to a couple of years later. Sharon and Rob now have two kids, and a dog, and a house. Rob has found success in a soulless job. Sharon’s still at home with the newborn. It’s still a stretch to call them happy, exactly, as we meet them now, but at least they’re familiar. These two are no longer attempting to find their rhythm; they’re doing whatever it takes to maintain it, without losing their goddamn minds.
That proves difficult. Each season of Catastrophe runs as long as an Avengers movie, and its heroes are beset by just as many malevolent forces. Instead of evil robot hordes, though, Rob and Sharon fight off familial perils: a father with dementia, an office flirtation, postpartum depression, and above all else, the strain of raising two small children while keeping your sanity and sex life anywhere close to okay.
It’s a lot to process, and that’s before we even get to the trials undergone by the characters in Catastrophe’s outer orbit. Chris (Mark Bonnar) has separated from his wife (Ashley Jensen), and both struggle to find fulfillment elsewhere. Rob’s friend Dave (Daniel Lapaine) starts this season three-months sober; it’s no real spoiler to say that by its end, he’s halfway dead from an overdose. Even Sharon’s wryly detached brother, Fergal (Jonathan Forbes), has run into money and marital problems. Nobody’s all right, and nothing is fine.
Unfortunately, you can’t squeeze that many years’ worth of calamity into such a short time frame without a few contrivances. A beautiful French office transfer propositions Rob, with consequences that advance the plot but threaten credulity. Dave’s road back to addiction follows predictable beats that stand out in a show that otherwise has little interest in convention.
Those moments are also only noticeable because of how realistically Catastrophe treats its other crises. Sharon’s father is the one with dementia; it’s clear there’s a problem in the very first episode. A more traditional series might devote a lot of time working through something so serious. The only time it’s mentioned on Catastrophe, if at all, is as an inconvenience. Its resolution, backburnered until episode six, is simply deciding whether it’s Sharon or Fergal who has to deal with it.
That might sound… cold? And maybe it is. But it’s also the most honest portrayal of life with two kids under three I’ve seen on a screen. It’s survival mode. There’s barely enough time for your own problems, much less other people’s.
The more you describe Catastrophe, the more bleak it sounds. And at times, it is, even more so than the first season. Mostly, though, that darkness is cut with humor. Horgan and Delaney are funny people, but importantly, so are their characters. They make jokes to defuse tension and to escalate it, to fill silences and create them. Sharon and Rob are a couple still clearly in love, or at least would be if they had any time for it.
It’s also a show that’s not afraid to revel in absurdity, lingering even on something as simple and silly as saying “take a lover” rather than “cheat,” or the confounding pronunciation of their infant daughter’s Gaelic name.
Part of me wants to force everyone to watch Catastrophe just so that they understand what it’s really like to have two kids still in diapers, or at least a heightened version of it, having just been through that myself. Mostly, though, I’d encourage you to watch it for a show that somehow finds laughter in even the darkest corners, and makes you care about the fates of people who are good, if not exactly kind.
A third season hasn’t yet been greenlit, but I certainly hope one is. Sharon and Rob—and their marriage–may be well past worn out, but they haven’t nearly worn out their welcome.