Catastrophe and the Comedy of the Self-Aware Marriage

Season 3 of Amazon’s show is funnier than ever as it portrays a couple negotiating serious issues with a smirk.

Ed Miller / Amazon Prime Video

Toward the end of the first episode of Catastrophe’s third season, Sharon sits down on a couch next to her husband Rob after confessing that she’s betrayed his trust. She asks a question: “What now?”

Rob re-etches his magnificent block of a face, and what had been stoic rage at his wife’s betrayal becomes resignation. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess over time I’ll have to learn to forgive you.”

“Right,” Sharon says, her brows knotting and her lip twitching, a picture of worry and shame. “Over how much time?”

“I don’t know. I guess it’ll take two or three months. A season.”

Sharon starts silently counting on her fingers.

Rob: “What are you doing?”

Sharon: “I’m just trying to work out if we’ll be okay by my birthday.”

“No! I’m thinking we might be okay by Thanksgiving.”

“When’s that?” the Irishwoman asks. “Sorry, I’ll look it up.”

Negotiating the timetable for a post-fight détente in this way may not be, for most couples, standard practice. But most couples—especially ones a few years and a few kids into marriage like Sharon and Rob are—probably do realize that fights and their aftermaths tend to take a certain shape and to have a certain lifespan. Sharon and Rob just happen to put it out in the open, as they—to the viewer’s delight—eventually put most things in the open.

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.”

B-plots involving the couple’s friends and family members prove mostly uproarious, as well. Even the most hapless-seeming supporting characters—Fran, aghast to be newly single in her 40s, and Dave, the lunkheaded hedonist emerging from rehab—turn out to be savvier and more introspective than it initially seemed. Especially of note is Rob’s mom, played by Carrie Fisher in one of her final roles. She shows up late in the season and is as selfish and as unsympathetic as ever—but even in her cruelest moment, the character delivers a moving bit of advice on a topic that, the public realizes, Fisher herself knew something about.

Yet the core of the show remains Sharon and Rob’s relatable and profane negotiations about loyalty and power and responsibility without the playbooks of tradition or piety. Catastrophe and its characters recognize that at any given moment, one person’s needs may require the other to stow their own issues—and that love lies in forgiving the betrayal and resentment almost inevitable to that dynamic. The season ends with another “what now?” moment, and it’s a grim one. But luckily these two can talk most anything out.