Do you hate romantic comedies? Then you’ll love Catastrophe.
Okay, so technically, Catastrophe is a romantic comedy, one that’s now streaming on Amazon Prime. But it’s not your typical rom-com. It’s the type that rolls its eyes at the smug, meant-for-each-other couples in Hollywood movies, and pretends to stick its finger down its throat whenever some bride or groom makes a last minute sprint to the altar. That doesn’t mean it’s cynical about love, though. Somehow, it’s far more romantic than any rom-com I’ve seen in a long time.
Created and written by its stars, Sharon Horgan, an Irish actress and TV writer who was dubbed “the Tina Fey of British TV” by the New York Times, and Rob Delaney, an American comedian who’s best known for making peregrine falcon jokes on Twitter, the series’ vibe feels very British, with a dry sense of humor that undercuts any sentimentality. Horgan plays Sharon, a 40-something Irish schoolteacher working in London. She meets Delaney’s character, Rob, an American ad man who’s in London on business, at a bar, and they hook up. About 25 times. Using a condom “maybe twice.” All either of them wants is a good shag and some banter. “You don’t have a hairy back!” she exclaims, surprised, after removing his shirt for the first time. “Neither do you!” he says.
There are no expectations for a long-distance relationship and no tearful goodbyes when he leaves. The whole thing is very No Big Deal, and somehow, it manages to stay that way, even after she calls to tell him she’s pregnant. “A terrible thing has happened,” he tells her, matter-of-factly. “Let’s make the best of it.”
The fact that Sharon calls Rob with the news within the series’ first 10 minutes, instead of saving the big reveal for a cliffhanger, tells you something important about this show. Catastrophe never suggests that Sharon’s pregnancy is the only thing that defines her story. It’s just one thing that’s happening to her within a longer and messier narrative, one that also shows her grappling with the complications of work and family and friendships with other women. That feels like a feminist message in itself. Where other rom-coms count down to a big wedding or the birth of a child, this one suggests that a happy ending can happen to a woman in all kinds of unexpected ways, at the most unexpected times.
Sometimes, those happy endings even happen in the middle of the story. Where other rom-coms build dramatic attention by moving from first dates to engagements, weddings, and pregnancies, this one intentionally puts them in the wrong order, allowing them to happen “too soon” in the usual scope of TV narratives, without building up the usual will-they-or-won’t-they suspense. It also lets major milestones unfold in anticlimactic scenes. Big news is often revealed as an aside, over the phone, or, say, while some random drunkard is peeing on the street in the background. Maybe Horgan and Delaney are reminding us that grand romantic gestures are great, but it’s what happens afterward, during the unglamorous moments, that makes love last.
Catastrophe is nothing if not a practical romance. Sharon immediately knows that she wants to keep the baby, without any of the usual hand-wringing over that decision. That type of effortless decision-making might’ve felt too convenient in a movie like Knocked Up, but here it makes sense, since she’s a single woman in her 40s who might not have many more chances to get pregnant. At first, her decision to raise the baby with Rob is more about necessity than love. “I can’t do this on my own,” she tells a friend. “I do need a man. And that doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist, okay? I just need a person to help me, and the person who wants to help me happens to be a man.”
Even though Rob and Sharon hardly know each other, there’s no mystique between them. He’s right there next to her when the OBGYN hikes up Sharon’s hospital gown. But that frees them to act like an old married couple, right from the start. They bicker easily and with good nature. They unite against their common enemies, wisecracking about dumb friends, doctors with terrible bedside manners, and meddlesome parents. (Carrie Fisher is perfectly infuriating as Rob’s passive-aggressive mother.) Rob and Sharon are a good reminder that, over time, the best relationships look less like rom-coms and more like buddy comedies.
Horgan knows that first-hand. “I did get pregnant very quickly in my relationship with my husband,” she recently told The Guardian. “So that we had to make some pretty fast decisions that we have to stay together now and we should probably get married and we should probably find out a bit about each other.” Thanks to that experience, and her knack for dark humor, she’s able to make Sharon seem like a real person, maybe the most realistic pregnant woman on TV. You’ll never see her hyperventilate through a lamaze class or send Rob on a late-night run for chocolate-covered sardines. She does admit to being “very horny and very depressed at the exact same time,” but even that old joke feels surprisingly fresh when she picks up a copy of the dirty magazine Raw Dog… and starts crying.
Usually, when Sharon gets emotional, it’s the direct result of dealing with common pregnancy issues, ones I’ve never seen addressed on television. One episode finds her getting diagnosed with precancerous cells, and worrying that it might turn into cancer. (There’s a running gag about how often the doctor says “cancer” when trying to convince her that it’s not.) Another finds her getting tested for the baby’s risk of Down’s syndrome. First, the doctor tells her there’s a 1/50 chance, then the nurse calls later and changes the odds to 1/25. It’s a testament to the show’s sophisticated sense of humor that the phone call somehow comes across as funny.
Horgan makes us love Sharon even though she’s flawed. “Generally American TV is sweeter comedy-wise and there tends to be a moral center and things usually end pretty nicely tied up in a bow and people are good people,” Horgan told The Guardian. “I think that the difference is that in the UK … we’re happier to have awful people as heroes.” While Sharon isn’t necessarily an awful person, she’s exactly the type of mother-to-be that many Americans love to shame. Early on, she asks Rob for a cigarette, and he lights one up for her right away, trusting her to make that decision, even if it’s not the best one. She’s unapologetic about drinking wine around an ex-boyfriend who insists that “even a sip of alcohol could be potentially harmful.” Whatever her choices, we’re not meant to judge her, or anyone else on this show. When Rob’s skeevy friend Dave (Daniel Lapaine) brags about how amazing it feels to not be committed to any one woman, Rob says, “That is great for you. For me, a different thing is great.”
That’s the best thing about Catastrophe: it reinforces the idea that greatness can mean different things to different people. If Rob and Sharon can make this work, it suggests, then maybe you don’t need to meet your soul mate in order to be happy, despite what rom-coms want us to believe. Maybe it’s the endless search for The One that makes people unhappy in the first place. Maybe it’s far more romantic to let terrible things happen, just like Rob says, and truly believe that you can make the best of them, as long as no one involved has a hairy back.