Catastrophe: The Realest Rom-Com

The Amazon show’s excellent second season—which is, remarkably, even better than the first—teases out the fissures in “happily ever after.”

Amazon Studios

The traditional rom-com formula goes, basically, like this: Couple meets; couple likes each other; couple also sort of hates each other; couple, soon enough, comes to love each other; couple, however, has an impediment that presents a challenge to them being together; couple overcomes that impediment to live, according to their respective rom-coms’ definition of “happy,” happily ever after. The specifics will vary, of course, but the implied ending, and upshot, of the whole thing is marriage, or a version of it. Most rom-coms leave their audiences to assume that, given the ups and downs of the courtship in question—the love shared and the difficulties overcome, often at an airport—the union will be blissful. Happily ever after is an aspiration, maybe, but it’s also an assumption.

Catastrophe, the Amazon show now entering its second season, is technically a rom-com—it is a comedy that deals with romance—but it’s one that thoroughly subverts that now-tired, old formula. Most obviously, it takes out all of the lead-up to the happily ever after by preventing its characters from having any kind of courtship at all. In season one, Sharon Morris (Sharon Horgan), an Irish school teacher, and Rob Norris (Rob Delaney), an American advertising exec, meet in a bar while he’s in London for a business trip. They have a great fling. But: That fling ends in a pregnancy, and they’re both in their 40s, and they really like each other, if they don’t yet fully love each other, and Rob likes London, and doesn’t really like Boston, and so they decide to stay together and give it a go as a family. They get married.

Underpinning all the comedy—and Catastrophe offers much to laugh at; it is perhaps one of the most cleverly and subtly written sitcoms currently on offer—is, from the very beginning, a sense of anxiety. Can these two make it, really? Can a relationship that begins in this haphazard way survive the various romantic inconveniences of Real Life? In an era of algorithmic matching and years-long courtships and years-longer searches for The One, can two people whose fates collided by way of their genes really make it as married couple, with all of marriage’s ups and downs?

Basically: Is their relationship evidence of serendipity, or of, indeed, catastrophe?

The show’s first season gets much of its dramatic pathos from those questions, and the second season—with, remarkably, even more subtlety, and frankness, and wit—does the same. Now, though, the tensions are sharper, because they don’t just involve Sharon and Rob; they involve the two new people their union has created. The show’s six new episodes start with Sharon and Rob—having had their son, Frankie, prematurely, three years before—preparing for the birth of their second child, a girl. (Later episodes will get a lot of comedic mileage out of the fact that the couple give her a traditionally Irish name—Muireann—whose Celtic diphthong none of the show’s American characters, the girl’s father included, is able to pronounce.)

And things, for the most part, are going well for Sharon and Rob! They’re parents. (Not just to Frankie and Muireann, but to a dog whose presence they seem to tolerate rather than appreciate.) They’re living in a lovely, eclectically decorated house. They have wacky friends and trying families, yes—Sharon’s father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; Rob’s mother (Carrie Fisher) resents his marriage and, seemingly, his children—but for the most part, the two people who randomly met in that bar in London are still very much in love.

The question, though, is whether that’s enough. One of the accomplishments of the new season is to suggest that the daily trials of marriage might be too much even for a pair who have the kind of obvious chemistry that Sharon and Rob do. While season one presented the couple with One Big Challenge, season two offers diffusive difficulties: Sharon, missing her job while she’s on maternity leave; Rob, hating his but feeling obligated, as the family’s breadwinner, to keep it; Sharon, dealing with the slow-burning fear that she won’t love her daughter as much as she loves her son; Rob’s alcoholism; their families, who are by turns demanding and uncaring; their small group of friends, who are the same; their differing levels of interest in postpartum sex; all of these amounting to a looming threat of infidelity.

There are other, smaller things, too—small fissures that threaten to accumulate into cracks that can break the whole, tenuous thing. Sharon never opens the mail when it comes. Rob doesn’t like the way they’ve celebrated their anniversary. Neither much likes their dog. And also: As new parents, they’re exhausted all the time. They’re threatened with money troubles. They don’t get a lot of emotional support outside of their relationship with each other. (In one particularly well-realized series of scenes, Sharon undergoes that most modern of humiliations: being dumped by a friend.) Sharon is sometimes kind of rude to their babysitter. Etc.

What all this amounts to is a continuation of what made the show’s first season so remarkable: its insistent frankness. Its remarkable subtlety. And, above all, its realness. Horgan and Delaney, who are both married (to other people) with children, write the show as well as star in it, and Catastrophe reflects that synergy. With the result that, instead of the shininess and fuzziness of the traditional rom-com, the show offers a grittier—but much more charming, and much more relatable—vision of what romance is all about. Catastrophe is a rom-com that finds its “com” in the daily doings of marriage that are not traditionally explored on TV and film. A romantic trip to Paris, not long after Muireann’s birth, is nearly ruined when Sharon forgets her breast pump. (“My tits hurt!” she moans, when they’re having dinner at nice restaurant.) Sharon, at one point, complains about her husband, “All Rob does is get me pregnant. What are we, farmers?” During Muireann’s birth, Sharon asks Rob, “Oh no, am I shitting myself now?” (He replies, gallantly: “Barely!”)

The emphasis on marriage’s mundanities is by design. “We wanted the characters to have real problems, not sitcom problems,” Horgan recently told The Evening Standard. And the show’s new season accomplishes that. The challenge the couple faces are the accumulations of the daily ups and downs—the kindnesses and slights, large and small—that together constitute marriage.

And for Sharon and Rob, the thing that has proven, again and again, to be their saving grace—the thing that has kept Sharon and Rob together so far, and also the thing that has kept their show so consistently engrossing—is the exceptional rapport they have with each other. It’s a question, at the end, how much saving that chemistry can do. But it is, for the moment, the thing that allows everything else they share—their blunt honesty, their wry humor, their ability to fight one moment and cuddle the next—to make sense. The two, toward the end of Catastrophe’s new season, have a blunt conversation about infidelity. Rob asks Sharon whether she’s cheated on him. She laughs and replies, “Are you kidding? I can’t show this fanny to anyone. It’s got all this scar tissue. I don’t even want to look at it.”

She pauses, and then delivers a line that, in the context of the show, is possibly the most romantic thing she could say, at that moment, to the man she has, against all odds, built a life with: “The only person I can show this fanny to is you.”