Three seasons in, the brilliance of Amazon’s unbelievably funny Catastrophe, which returns April 28, is in how it makes perceptible the kinds of relationship-related details that are often least visible. Ever since a one-night stand between a U.K. schoolteacher and an American adman led to pregnancy—which led to marriage which led to another pregnancy—Sharon and Rob’s superpower has been self-awareness. They see how they appear to each other, and they see how it fits into a larger pattern of wives and husbands, and they see how to be both sensitive and gut-splittingly funny as they proceed in light of that awareness.
Which means that for all Sharon and Rob’s troubles—and they do have some very big troubles—Catastrophe’s marriage is as apt an emblem of “modern romance” as any of 2017 pop culture’s heterosexual couplings are. Can loving, monogamous, child-bearing, companionate marriage survive irony and gender egalitarianism and sexual frankness and strident individualism? Catastrophe is always testing this question—and, as importantly, its characters are consciously testing it too. In spite of occasional darkness and less-than-occasional disgustingness, the feel-good series wants the answer to be “yes.”
The show’s second season saw a blow-out fight sending husband and wife to separate corners for some destructive behavior. Rob, long sober, got drunk for the first time in years. Sharon got drunk, too—and hooked up with a 20-something, though the details of what “hooked up” means is, for viewer and blacked-out Sharon alike, unclear. The pair reconciled, leaving some crucial details of their time apart unconfessed, but then Rob came across the receipt for Sharon’s Plan B pill. The season cut out just as it seemed he was going to confront her about it.
Season 3 picks up exactly there, with Rob’s mouth mid-motion. What ensues is not quite a knock-down, drag-out confrontation about Sharon’s infidelity—not yet. First comes an extremely perceptive depiction of a household into which suspicion and guilt has crept: “We have a wavelength, we communicate verbally and nonverbally—and something feels fucked up,” Rob says, and viewers can sense it too. Eventually, their friend Fran’s advice, delivered in a cheerful Scottish accent, proves correct: “Lies are like a child hiding in a cupboard. You’re always going to find them. If you wait too long, you might just find a little corpse.”
As the season progresses, writers/actors Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney deftly show the couple mending trust even as one party maintains a secret that, one expects, will eventually become a “little corpse.” Meanwhile, mid-life conflicts jockey for attention: money vs. fulfillment, career vs. kids, house shopping, aging parents, living wills, plastic surgery. Some of these challenges feel especially current, and are all the funnier for it. The inciting incident of the HBO show Big Little Lies, in which parents are brought to account for unsubstantiated accusations of schoolyard violence, gets a hilarious and savage retread. And in his torturous job search, Rob struggles to convey feminist ideals while discussing the false sexual harassment accusation levied against him. “Sometimes people unfairly side with the man—why would anyone side with the man?” he tells a headhunter, before switching his tone. “I’ll tell you why.”