In this era of anxiety about spoilers, certain aspects of any new TV show/movie/book/play/video game are generally thought to be beyond spoiling. For you to talk about or write about a TV show’s new season, for example, you have to be able to talk about the situation the characters find themselves in at the very beginning of that season, usually. And yet, though you can’t plan for it, there are still times when not knowing even that basic info ahead of watching a show can be a blessing.
Ignorance, if possible, is the best way to enter Catastrophe’s exceptionally funny second season. The show’s creators, Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, haven’t tried to hide the simple and fairly conventional decision they made about the premise of the second run of episodes for their filthy Amazon rom-com, even going so far as to reveal that premise when giving interviews about their first season. But somehow I missed the memo, and I’m glad I did, because it heightens the fun of the season’s opening scene—a scene that contains some of the best sitcom material this year.
Now, to spoil it while describing how great it is.
Season one ended with Sharon and Rob having a horrible fight interrupted when her water broke. Cut to credits. Season two opens with the couple in bed and Sharon appearing quite pregnant, which should trigger some cognitive dissonance on the viewer’s part. Taking in that image, three possibilities occur: Sharon was mistaken about her water breaking, the show has jumped ahead in time and Sharon is with child again, or the show is flashing back to a time during the duration of the first season. In any case, the viewer’s factual confusion should quickly falls aside as they get caught up in the main action of the scene, which consists of Sharon and Rob being really horrible and funny.
They’re watching a reality-TV competition. Sharon finds it an acceptable replacement for Mad Men and Game of Thrones not being on; Rob wants to turn it off and have sex; she seems open to the idea but only on the condition that she gets to first watch the beginning of the next show. Perhaps sensing that this verdict is a letdown for Rob, Sharon puts her legs onto his—an imposition, yes, but potentially also a sign of affection. He’s not having taking it as one. After asking her to move her legs, he does it for her with a not-so-gentle fling. And then we’re off into a fight.
Those initial, pre-war moments of TV viewing are the defining mode of communication in a relationship: a negotiation. It’s about free time, it’s about sex, and it’s conducted mostly in code. The director, Ben Taylor, keeps his camera static for the close shots of the husband and wife talking to each other, but brings Sharon and Rob alternatively in and out of focus depending on who’s driving the tension of the moment.
The way the negotiation escalates into a fight is illustrated in a kind of nonsense verbal ping-pong match where the same words are hurled back and forth with increasing intensity: “That was just really aggressive.” “It wasn’t aggressive.” “You’re so aggressive!” “I’m aggressive!?” “‘AGGRESSIVE, AGGRESSIVE’—it was even aggressive the way you said that, Mark Wahlberg!” Horgan and Delaney, who write the show as well as star in it, have a knack for dialogue that is funny on the level of joke-construction but even funnier on the level of pure sound. “Don’t loom over me,” Sharon chides Rob.
It’s an argument about arguing, as which is perhaps the most universal kind of argument there is, spanning international peace processes and marriage. Sharon says she feels threatens; Rob responds with the un-PC question of whether she’s going to blog about feeling threatened by him. She’s horrified, but, you can tell, also a little amused by the line—a glimpse of the sick humor that brought them together in the first place.
The most important thing here is that everything that’s happening in that bedroom is circumscribed by the sturdiness of a loving relationship—they will spar, but they will not draw blood. When Sharon tells Rob to go take a walk to calm down, she’s taken aback that he’s going to actually go do it. When he returns immediately, realizing she’s parked the car somewhere without his knowledge, it’s a reminder of the concrete reality of their relationship: They’re so bound up that storming out isn’t an option.
In bed, facing away from each other, Rob says that he’ll scream if she comes near him. The camera is close on Sharon’s face when he makes that threat, and she breaks a smile. This week, NPR’s Linda Holmes published a spot-on analysis of the use of laughter on this show, which helps explain why this moment is so winning:
The frequent deployment of in-scene laughter in Catastrophe solves a common problem with relationship comedies, which is their tendency to feel transactional. People seem to be performing the relationship more than being in it, and contrary to every close relationship — romantic or otherwise — scenes generally either sit in one spot to make a point or they move along a straight line. Either any given scene is loving, or it’s playful, or it’s an argument, or it’s a scene where people make up according to predictable rhythms of apology and forgiveness.
Sharon’s amusement, in this case, allows what was an argument caused by not having sex into an occasion for frantic, thumping sex. This being Catastrophe, even the raunchy happy ending has a punchline: Rob asks her to put her finger in his asshole, but she can’t seem to reach it.
Then another punchline: A little kid walks in the room.
Oh, right—three minutes into the episode, the show had allowed you to forget how weird it is that Sharon is pregnant. Comedy is in surprise, and the surprise of seeing their son appear is quite high, or at least it was for me. Of course, anyone who’s read press coverage of this season knows that Catastrophe has used the now-classic sitcom maneuver of the time jump, skipping the infancy of their first child so as to portray settled domestic life and a second pregnancy. And the chronological copping suggests that Catastrophe has the tantalizing potential to become a 21st-century, streaming-TV, post-Apatow version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series. If future installments are set even further ahead in the timeline of Sharon’s and Rob’s lives, let them open with a scene as uproarious and as insightful as this one was.