‘Catastrophe’ Is the RomCom We’ve Been Waiting For
A long weekend is approaching, thanks to July 4th, and my strong recommendation is that you binge watch a show about an American abandoning the country our founding revolutionaries fought so hard for, and moving back to England. You can do it in two and a half hours. When you’re done, you can tell people you watched The Patriot twice, but had to stop before Heath died the second time.
In Catastrophe, now streaming on Amazon Prime but originally from the UK’s Channel 4, Rob Delaney plays Rob, a fortysomething Bostonian who, on a business trip to London/unexpected weeklong fling, impregnates Sharon, an appropriately-aged Irish teacher played by Sharon Horgan (names!). When Sharon calls a month later with the news, Rob returns to the U.K. and convinces a reluctant, pregnant, relative-stranger that he wants to move overseas, marry her, and raise their relative-stranger baby. Setting aside notable questions like, “How did two people in their forties not use a condom?!?” and “Are you sure you want to keep that? You know you don’t have to keep that,” co-creators Horgan and Delaney have engineered the perfect scheme to have two incredibly appealing actual adults gradually but sparkily make a relationship work. It’s a great argument for semi-arranged marriage.
It’s funny, because U.S. networks proved this year that one formula that definitely does not work at all is what we all really enjoy calling the romsitcom. In order, Manhattan Love Story, Selfie, A to Z, and Marry Me were cancelled, with low ratings and lousy reviews. The only survivor of the trend was the anti-rom sitcom, FX’s You’re the Worst, which ended up being the best. Even old barnacles, like About a Boy (based on a romcom, at least) and Ephron-obsessed The Mindy Project, got dumped by their networks. Mindy will be back on Hulu, but its Fox run will be remembered as as charmingly uneven as a teenager’s first experience with self-tanner. It seems like it’s really, really hard to make and keep a burgeoning relationship fun and new and full of screwball vibes, week after week after week.
But as Catastrophe proves, it doesn’t make a ton of sense that it’s so impossibly hard to depict a growing relationship in series form. What should be hard is capturing all the small moments that make a relationship actually cool and interesting in only 90 minutes. Watching two people get to know one another over the course of multiple episodes, say, 150 minutes (or six 25 minute shots), you get all the stops and starts, tiny-but-meaningful gestures, and slow-building alliances that create a couple. Maybe it’s the 13 to 22 episodes at 22 minutes each (a staggering 286 to 484 minutes) that take the wind out of a fictional relationship’s sails.
American television seasons have been getting shorter and shorter, so I wonder if we’ll eventually give in and admit that the British system of six episode “series” (seasons, for us) is pretty much perfect. I’ve spent a bit of time in this space talking about how we need to give pilots and even new programs a break and let baby shows become the special show-snowflakes they’re meant to be, but maybe the British formula gives creators the ideal skeleton to build a funny, sharp, tightly-structured show with intention.
Or maybe it’s just that on all those cancelled U.S. romsitcoms, none of the central couples had the kind of chemistry that Sharon and Rob, real and fictional, have in Catastrophe.
It all comes down to chemistry, as performers, but also as writers. The writing is spot-on, the kind of spot-on that makes you forget there is writing, especially on a show where the main actors are also the creators and writers, and they share the characters’ first names. They’re so charming together, that their plot — truly one catastrophe after another — is solidly comic despite scary notes, but still deeply affecting. Two funny people go through a series of nightmare challenges, but they do it with such wit and grace (well, mostly Rob, Sharon is pregnant after all), that they call to mind Coach and Tami Taylor, another classic handsome man/spirited red-headed lady duo with a unexpectedly enviable relationship.
Horgan, in particular, is a revelation, especially if you (like me) have never watched Pulling (going to fix that now for sure), and only know her from the one of two episodes of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret you watched (another show about an American over his head in the U.K., but one that didn’t use Horgan nearly as well). Horgan is hilariously snippy and stressed out as a grown-ass woman wrestling with her lateish-in-life pregnant body, but, when called for, as charming and luminous as if she’d been starring in unimported Richard Curtis movies for the last decade. Delaney, for his part, really, really deserves to never be called a “Twitter comedian” again after this. He’s a subtle and affecting actor, and makes steady and devoted seem sexy and funny.
The fact that Rob and Sharon’s initial attraction and continued favorite past time is the apparently-fantastic coitus they share adds fire to the witty, cranky, endearing, awkward, honest proceedings. Usually TV, at least in American TV, doesn’t make sex with a fortysomething pregnant lady seem like anything but a joke. Here, it seems worth moving continents for. And it’s definitely worth watching.
One request for season two, which has been confirmed: import old school witch genius Carrie Fisher, playing Rob’s mom, to London, at least for an episode. She’s used perfectly sparingly as is, but I want to see teeny tiny Leia go up against Big and Tall U.K.’s next top model.