I firmly believe there are two kinds of romantic comedies. The first kind is the easily forgotten crap that usually doesn’t think very highly of women, that delivers happily ever after, and contains drama that wouldn’t happen in the first place if couple in question communicated with each other openly and honestly, like most of us in real life. The second kind has a far more honest approach to romance. Yes, it is funny, hence the comedy part of the genre title, but it’s also messy and complicated. Happy endings aren’t always a thing, and if they are it comes after a lot of work and compromise. These are the kinds of romantic comedies that stick and have things to say and feel real. And I’m very happy that Amazon Prime’s latest series Catastrophe happily falls into the latter category.
The setup for Catastrophe is nothing you haven’t seen before. It is your classic boy meets girl, boy has lots of sex with girl, girl gets pregnant tale. But make no mistake, Catastrophe is very refreshing and original despite its setup.
Rob (the very funny Rob Delaney whose standupLive at Bowery Ballroom is available on Netflix) is an American ad man who meets an Irish schoolteacher named Sharon (Sharon Horgan) on a business trip in London. Both spend a week having lots of sex, but at the end of it part ways amicably. A month later Rob gets that dreaded call; Sharon is pregnant.
The first season, available on Amazon Prime, is only six episodes long, which makes it easy to knock out in a few days, or one incredibly rainy evening. There isn’t any fat on the show, and despite its short length, there are only great things to be said about Catastrophe. Season One follows Rob and Sharon as they figure out what they’re going to do about the pregnancy, and if they are going to be in a relationship together.
None of this would work if one or both the leads weren’t likable characters of course, but from the start, Catastrophe nails this. Delaney and Horgan, who also write the show, aren’t your typical romcom fare. Rob is immensely likable and relatable. He’s not too thrilled with his job but needs to pay the bills. His first instincts when finding out Sharon is pregnant is to fly over to London at the expense of his job and personal life to support Sharon. He freaks out initially, of course, but throughout the show is a very grounded and supportive presence. He is rational and not a man-child who is shaken into maturity by an unexpected pregnancy. Rather he’s a guy with his life mostly together, who is adapting to a big change. And Delaney really sells that he is a guy who is invested in Sharon and trying to do the right thing somewhat selflessly, even though he too can be prone to occasional emotional overreactions.
Of course, the criticism of romantic comedies isn’t usually that the men are one-dimensional, but that the women are. Sharon, however, is thankfully not written that poorly. She is pushing 41, a schoolteacher who will never be the great writer she wants to be, and this may be her best shot at getting pregnant. But Sharon isn’t manipulative or irrational. She accepts her pregnancy and while she is grateful for Rob’s support, we never get the sense that she’d be helpless without it. She asks for only as much as she needs. She is whip-smart and the reason she and Rob are such a good fit is because both can hold their own in conversation. Towards later episodes, it is clear her mood swings are motivated by hormones and not because the writers needed to inject some drama into the scene.
The characters are truly the shining spot, and most other romcoms suffer retroactively as a result. Sharon is stressed but not shrill. Rob is foul-mouthed but not gross. Both are perfectly capable and functioning on their own, but you get the sense that they are better together. And their relationship isn’t some Disney perfect romantic fairy tale. When Rob comes back to London, he knows they need to actually work on their relationship if they are to have one. We see from the start that Rob and Sharon are good for each other, but like any relationship it still needs work and development, and both go into it with that mindset. And the pregnancy isn’t a life-ruining curse from God, but an adjustment. But Sharon and Rob really are a good fit. And when it needs to be said, “I’m sorry” is said instinctively not begrudgingly. The show even throws you a few curveballs by setting up drama and conflict we’ve seen a thousand times before “She kissed me” etc, but has those moments defuse with a whimper because the characters aren’t that stupid.
The best part of their relationship, however, is that they are both very funny, intelligent, well-spoken wise-asses. They bring most of the laughs, and indeed seem to say what the audience is thinking. Whether it’s Rob explaining why strip clubs are weird, or Sharon commenting on her spoiled best friend, they both make you laugh a lot. Again though, the obvious laughs the genre has mined to death are completely avoided, and we get something different this time around.
Catastrophe also gives us something different. Delaney (38) and Horgan (45) are both adults. There isn’t any high school drama or politics, and there aren’t any NBC/CBS babies complicate but then bring together storylines. Instead, the show follows Rob as he settles into a new life separate from all he has known, and Sharon who on the show is 41, and how a pregnancy at that age can be more of a medical challenge than she’d like. Sharon is suddenly at a risk for cancer, her child has a high risk of being born with down syndrome, and there is the simple fact that being pregnant at that age is just tougher on the body than it would be 15 years before But again, Sharon and Rob work through these hurdles together. In fact, the drama on the show doesn’t feel like drama per se. Sharon and Rob are oddly supportive (in comparison to every other romcom) and smart. As a result, when tensions do come to a head, it feels earned and realistic and about an actual frustration or problem.
Sharon and Rob’s story feels so much more honest and complete in six episodes than Ross and Rachel ever did over ten years. That is because Catastrophe is made by adults for adults. You’ve seen that before. Instead they offer a grounded, drama-lite drama that actually has heart. And isn’t heart what you want most from your romantic comedy?