A Great Little “Catastrophe”: Channel 4’s charming show about life’s best mistakes

“Fully Formed Human Beings”. That’s what my co-worker Sandra calls them. You might know them better as adults. Those people who have lived long enough to know that they really don’t know anything and ask the right questions and probably worked a shitty job dealing with the public at some point in their lives. People who know when they are feeling like crap and why they are feeling like crap (probably because they haven’t eaten) and when they are happy and why they are happy (probably because they have eaten). When I was a kid adults always seemed like they had a script and knew exactly the right lines to say at all times. But, of course, they didn’t. They were messing up just like I was. Because, really, when can we say we are fully formed? When can we say we’ve stopped growing and changing and learning and fucking up? Sometimes it feels like adulthood is just a series of awful mistakes.

Catastrophe, a short, smart, hilarious, six-episode series (available on Shomi in Canada), stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who also wrote the show together. The show follows two people, Sharon, a fun-loving, 40-something school teacher, and Rob, a rich, straight-laced 40-something goofball, who has one of those vague marketing jobs (or something like that) and is in London for a business trip. The two meet in a bar, have sex and then continue to meet in bars and restaurants and have a bunch more sex for the few days Rob is in town. It’s clear the two like each other a lot, they have an easy chemistry and laugh at each other’s jokes. But the romance is fleeting (Rob’s phone contact description for Sharon is, fittingly, “Sharon London Sex”), of course it is, Rob has to go back to the States in a few days. And he does. But, then he gets a panicked phone call from Sharon. She’s pregnant. And Rob’s “American” way of dealing with the situation is to go back to London to help Sharon however he can. There’s brief talk of an abortion but both Rob and Sharon feel like they are adult enough to consider having a baby (who knows if Sharon will ever get another shot!), even with someone they don’t love or really even know. Things get progressively worse from there. Sharon’s is considered a “geriatric” pregnancy because of her age, there could be complications with the baby and Sharon may have “pre-cancer”. Plus, Rob’s room smells of farts.

The obvious comparison to the show, due to the premise alone, is Knocked-Up, Judd Apatow’s comedy about two people who have a one-night stand, get pregnant and decide to start a relationship. But, that’s really where the comparison ends. Catastrophe is about two people, who genuinely like each other and seem like a good fit for one another. And, if they had a bit more time together, or lived in the same city, and dated for a good number of years, they may have decided to get married and have a baby together. It’s like the pregnancy expedites years of a relationship. It’s like the pregnancy is a time machine (everything moves altogether too quickly on the show, there isn’t much breathing room, and this culminates in a rushed fight in the last episode, which is one of the unfortunate side effects of an all-too-short 6 episode series). Rob and Sharon are forced to figure each other out quickly. But, and this is crucial, they aren’t forced to do what they are doing. At one point in the season, Sharon has a conversation with a schoolteacher friend who tells her that she really doesn’t need to do this. Sharon knows this but she’s made a decision. Sharon is also very clear about needing Rob’s help. This doesn’t make her frail or weak – if anything, it just makes it clear how self-aware she is. She can’t do it alone and she knows it. What Catastrophe recognizes, smartly, is that sometimes, lots of times, as an adult you run into walls that you need a boost to jump over.

There are many things that I instantly fell in love about Catastrophe: the banter, the off-colour humour and that the jokes are the way real people might crack-wise (here’s one of my favourites: “She hasn’t been able to enjoy an episode of Mad Men since that night because you remind her of Harry”), the gigantic underlying heart of the main characters in spite of their barbs and jabs, the way that the show uses the romantic comedy formula and makes it a little less gag-inducing by injecting it with some semblance of truth. But my favourite thing about the show is how often these two people, Rob and Sharon, are delighted by each other – find each other sexy and hilarious. Sharon’s laugh, this crazy cackle, emanating from somewhere deep in the back of her throat is one of the best things I have seen and heard on TV this year. It reminds me how rarely we see people laugh at each other’s silly little jokes on sit-coms. I can’t think of another show, aside from maybe Broad City, where two people are so receptive to each other in this way. Rob and Sharon smile at each other, they make each other laugh and they are good together. And they might not love each other, not yet, but they are very close to liking each other an awful lot. They like to spend time with each other and, at the same time, know when they need to ask the other person to take a walk – just for a few hours – because they need some time alone.

As performers Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney are lovely together – and apart. Delaney, a comedian who is famous mainly through Twitter, is a big lug of a guy with a goofball smile. He also happens to be very handsome. The kind of guy who was probably born with a strong jaw. Sharon calls him a “sturdy lover”. He’s generally sturdy. One of the running jokes is how large Rob is. Sharon’s students ask him, repeatedly, if he is a basketball player (and if he knows the Obama’s). He has a warm presence and an easy-going style. I should also say that Delaney seems like he could easily play a dick on some other show, which really sells his playboy early years. The fact that Rob is really nice (I’d go so far to say the character might even be too nice) becomes an interesting character choice. The real star of the show, though, is Horgan, who I had never seen in anything before. Horgan is much more assured as an actor than Delaney and she’s very good at playing this kind of brittle woman who is always on the verge of getting upset or angry or laughing hysterically – the kind of woman who is always in need of a cigarette. That’s not to say that Horgan isn’t warm or engaging because she also both those things. Sharon is always in a vacillating emotional state and this is nicely counterbalanced by Rob’s even-keelness.

A number of critics (maybe all of them) have written about Catastrophe’s secondary characters being underdeveloped. I can’t disagree. This is especially the case with Rob’s “friend” Dave, who is the kind of awful human being for which the term “douche-bag” was invented. Dave is basically the only person, aside from Sharon, who Rob knows in London so it kind of makes sense that he’d give him a call. What makes much less sense is that Rob would spend any time with Dave beyond their first hang-out. A similar issue exists with Sharon’s friend, Fran (played by the wonderful Ashley Jensen who you likely know as Maggie on Extras). Fran is not a good person generally and she is not a good person to Sharon, but at this point anyway, not much else. Better is Sharon’s brother, Fergal, who is dealing with his own relationship issues and enjoys taking the piss from Rob. The best of the bunch though is Chris, Fran’s exceptionally strange husband, who looks like a cartoon ghost/snake. Chris is the kind of deadpan weird that you want to see more of. He’s been with Fran forever and seems to despise her for many things, while also finding her sexy and having a certain kind of fondness for her. Chris has a glimmer of nuance where the rest of the secondary crew does not. It also helps that he is legitimately funny. Luckily, the show was picked up for a second season where surely some of these issues will be worked out.

Adults aren’t really fully formed anything. They are flailing around and making mistakes and faltering and falling all the time. Catastrophe tells us it’s best when we have someone else around to fall with. Maybe they’ll help pick us up.

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