The case for ‘Catastrophe,’ Amazon’s soaring cult comedy

The third season of Amazon’s excellent romantic comedy Catastrophe isn’t romantic and often isn’t all that funny, which paradoxically, is what makes it so vital. Many romantic comedies treat the genre as if it were a sales pitch. The lead couple is so likable, cute, and devoid of any scarring flaws, meaning that you want them to be together. If the filmmakers presented love as it actually is, the assumption is that you might never even bother getting married. Who wants to see Julia Roberts change a diaper at 4:00am, or Meg Ryan clean up toddler vomit?

Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan), who are eternally teetered on the edge of breaking up, often don’t like themselves, let alone each other. When viewers last left the couple, they had reunited after a trial separation but with a twist: Sharon can’t remember if she slept with a university student while blackout drunk. Given that six days of unprotected sex led to a baby with Rob, Sharon buys Plan B to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself and forgets to throw away the receipt. Rob discovers it, and the second season finale memorably ends with Delaney’s shocked expression as his character struggles to make sense of the information. He looks at his wife as if he had married a stranger.

But if Rob were being honest, he did. The two barely knew each other when he proposed.

Catastrophe’s prior two seasons offered a charming and off-kilter view of relationships, one that consistently upended the tropes of the genre. When Rob proposes to Sharon in the series’ second episode, he drops the ring and a homeless woman pees on it. In the same episode, a character describes giving birth as “a little troll tobogganing out of your wife’s snatch on a wave of turds.” But the show’s look at marriage has never been more unflinching than in its third season, one that deepens and enriches its narrative in every possible way. It’s consistently surprising, impossible to pin down, and difficult to stop thinking about.

Not just because of the great Carrie Fisher. The Hollywood icon died in December of a heart attack at 60, and her work here will stand as her final in TV. She’s played Delaney’s mom during the entire series, and though she only appears in the season 3 finale, packs a walloping sendoff that has it all: down-and-out humor, grim warnings, and ageless wisdom. You’ll have to get there yourself, but Fisher even improvised her final comedic bit and lines—a boiling rant about television.

Delaney and Horgan, who write each episode of Catastrophe together, famously integrate parts of their own lives into the show. Horgan did actually have a shotgun wedding after getting pregnant, and Delaney has long been vocal about his struggles with alcohol addiction. Viewers see more of Rob’s sobriety slipping this season when he buries his feelings about his wife’s possible infidelity into booze and overeating. The comedian gained noticeable weight between seasons, and Catastrophe gets a fair bit of comedic mileage out of Rob’s angst over the changes in his body. Reflecting on the time that he ate a former co-worker’s hot cross buns out of the refrigerator, Rob comments that they were “terrible.” His old boss asks Rob why he ate them all if the pastries were so bad. “That’s not the point!” he retorts.

Like the similarly themed You’re the Worst, Catastrophe often treads into weighty subject matter but with an often bracing lack of sentimentality. After Sharon goes back to her job as a schoolteacher, she becomes head of Upper Juniors after a colleague takes his own life. She cheerfully tells Rob, “I got a promotion today, because somebody died!” Rob, out of a job after being fired for false sexual harassment charges, struggles to explain the situation. “When a woman makes a complaint of sexual harassment, 99 percent of the time it’s based in reality,” Rob tells a job corps worker. Rob says that it’s important to “believe women” but “she’s a liar and I didn’t do it.” Comedy, like relationships, often walks a delicate tightrope.

Blending the actors’ lived experiences with fiction adds a level of verisimilitude to the show that’s often lacking in comedies about married couples. Neither overly sentimental or too bitterly acrimonious, it always finds the right note. For all of Rob and Sharon’s problems, you can see why they want to make it work, whether it’s the actors’ relaxed, unforced chemistry or the daily demands of parenting. Although the couple’s children are rarely seen on-screen, the two rally to take their son to the hospital after he falls in the bathroom, slicing open his eye. If many couples stay together for the kids, theirs always bring them back together.

Much has already been written about Delaney and Horgan’s faces, how good the actors are at expressing the complex, conflicting emotions their characters are feeling. No one in television is better at registering disgust than Rob Delaney, whether it’s a CEO who tells him that it doesn’t matter if his character “tried to fuck an extremely fuckable co-worker,” or an acquaintance who says that her son just landed a part in the new Woody Allen movie, a film in which “Robert Duvall and Emma Watson play star-crossed lovers in Vienna.”

“I was worried,” she explains. “I won’t lie, but they have on-set tutors to, you know, keep an eye.” But what makes the actor’s reaction—those bushy brows that furrow into a disapproving grimace—so spot-on is that it radiates a keen understanding of how Rob is and how he sees the world. Not only does the audience feel like we know these characters, but the show’s creators do, too. That makes all the difference.

Catastrophe is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s great Before trilogy, a film series that drops in on a couple every nine years—when they first meet, when they meet again, and then when they are married with children. The beauty of these films is to see how Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) grow and evolve between movies. The conversations they had nine years ago, strolling through Vienna and Paris, appear to contradict who they are now. But in truth, we are all in a process of becoming. Each film is like a different pin in an endless road map.

Re-watching the first season of Catastrophe before the new edition, it was difficult not to be struck by the difference in tone. The early episodes were witty and barbed, but as the show ages, the humor is rooted in the characters’ pain and disappointment—the sad kind of funny. Its main players look physically weighed down by the burden of reality, whether it’s Rob and Sharon or their circle of friends.

Fran, played by the always spectacular Ashley Jensen, is crushed after her new boyfriend (Douglas Hodge) suddenly disappears. She looks it up on the internet and discovers that what happened to her is called “ghosting.” Fran claims that they invented it in Los Angeles. The hard-partying Dave (Daniel Lapaine) begrudgingly decides to have a baby with his girlfriend after she refuses to accept a bribe to have an abortion. He plans to “hire a bunch of nannies” and be “more of a benevolent figure in the background.”

This scene acts as a kind of thesis statement for Catastrophe. When Dave confesses that he is scared to become a father, Chris (Mark Bonnar) remarks that he should be. “Why should you be scared?” Chris asks. “Who are you that you don’t need to be scared? If you’re alive, you should be scared sometimes. The world’s a fucking slaughterhouse.”

That might not be the view of relationships and commitment that Hollywood sold us, but it’s the one that’s more honest. Catastrophe is sometimes a brutal sit, but it’s wiser and more painfully insightful than 100 Katherine Heigl movies. Don’t you dare miss it.

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.