Film & TV

As It Saves the Sitcom Once Again, Amazon's Catastrophe Is Anything But

The second season of Amazon's Catastrophe might do for the #TGIF-style family sitcom of the late ‘80s and ‘90s what the first did for the ailing rom-com: open-mouthed resuscitation on the operating table after one too many Garry Marshall–fueled heart attacks like Valentine's Day. (Or New Year's Eve? It doesn't...
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The second season of Amazon's Catastrophe might do for the #TGIF-style family sitcom of the late ‘80s and ‘90s what the first did for the ailing rom-com: open-mouthed resuscitation on the operating table after one too many Garry Marshall–fueled heart attacks like Valentine's Day. (Or New Year's Eve? It doesn't matter.)

The spat between Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) that opens the second-season premiere depicts exactly what brought the unlikely couple together — and what may drive them apart. Sharp, caustic and ever so slightly mean-spirited, Rob and Sharon usually reserve their wit for making fun of other couples, but now they've turned on one another. Sharon, pregnant and miserable, is deep into watching a reality show when Rob tries his best to woo her away. Unfortunately for Rob, his sexual prowess is no match for trashy TV and a coffee mug full of ice cream. Their petty sniping results in hurt feelings, stormy exits and enthusiastic make-up sex (Him: "Put your finger in my asshole!" Her, trying to reach around her giant belly: "How?!"). Once they're interrupted mid-thrust by an inquisitive toddler and a barking dog, we're really off to the races.

What first made Catastrophe so compelling and surprising is muted in this latest season, released by Amazon on April 13. The powerful jolt of Delaney and Horgan's sexual chemistry — and the comedy that the show mined from the ramifications of unprotected sex with a stranger — has given way to meatier subjects.

Now, instead of a quickie in a London stairwell, we follow Rob and Sharon into the trenches of parenthood, leaping forward several years from the first season's cliffhanger. This smart structural move eradicates a little of the "will these two crazy kids make it?" tension that powered the first season. Rather, the show is more interested in depicting how difficult the process of "making it" can actually be.

Not for nothing, Sharon's dad (Gary Lilburn) reminds the couple of their unlikely success with the most inappropriate of celebratory toasts. "We all thought it had about as much chance of lasting as a fart in a storm," Lilburn imparts in his Irish brogue. "No one, not one single person thought it would last. Least of all your mother." Is it any wonder Sharon winds up crying on Rob's shoulder mid-party? "Everyone's still here!" she wails, fatigued by the family party that just won't end. Like other comedies that traffic in shock value, including Veep or Girls, Catastrophe's characters possesses a willingness to say out loud — and in public — what many of us struggle to admit even in private.

In the first season, we watched Rob and Sharon develop feelings for one another despite the obstacles keeping them apart. Rob was a big-wig ad exec from Boston who never meant to spend more than a few weeks exploring London, and Sharon was a school teacher looking for a fling on her night out. Instead she wound up pregnant and compelled by latent Irish-Catholic guilt to keep the baby. "A terrible thing has happened," agrees Rob in the season-one premiere. "Let's make the best of it." (Sharon acquiesces with a wry shrug.)

Now, the two must contend with demanding relatives, ailing parents and postpartum depression — the sweet honeymoon period of their strange courtship is long behind them. The funniest in this set of new, more serious problems is Rob's exquisitely selfish, pain-in-the-ass mother (Carrie Fisher), who "mislaid her passport" in order to stay an extra week in her son's London apartment. Fisher's character trolls eBay for Hummel knockoffs instead of helping watch the kids, deliberately mispronouncing the new baby's name as "Moron" or "Myron." (One of the great jokes of season two is that no one can pronounce the baby's name, except for Sharon's Irish kin.)
Poor Sharon's plight is magnified by her difficulties managing a serious depression that's zapped her sex drive. She's too sarcastic to fit in with the other mums of her daughter's sunny playgroup and bored to death as the primary caregiver for her two children. In its depiction of Sharon's depression, Catastrophe vaults over ground that most TV dramas would handle with muted colors and long stretches of silence, the way Mad Men had Betty Draper take a drag on a cigarette amidst the stifling signifiers of suburbia.

Instead, Sharon's depressive paranoia becomes a shocking, revelatory punchline that results in immediate therapy and corrective drugs. "You haven't bonded with the baby?" Rob asks, astounded. "No … You don't think she seems … manipulative? Like she's plotting something?" Sharon asks. To his credit, Rob responds with kind-hearted ribbing rather than alarm, even as Sharon seems genuinely concerned about possible mutiny at the hands of a months-old baby. Given the show's interest in failed or absent mother figures, it's no stretch to say that future mother-daughter anguish is probably in young Muireann's future. (Pronounced Mwee-rin. Oh, never mind.)

Catastrophe's willingness to tackle the gendered gulf between heterosexual parenting roles is especially refreshing. Subject to judgment from friends and family alike, exhausted Sharon can never do anything right, while Rob reaps the benefits of his corporate job in marketing for a pharmaceutical company. He even catches the eye of Olivia (Emmanuelle Bouaziz), a beautiful French marketing rep, who lovingly details the blowjob she'd like to bestow on Rob's penis. Catastrophe is at its best when it highlights the emotional underpinnings of comic exaggeration. And while it finds potential in the "every man's" fantasy encounter with a hot continental exec, the show backs itself into a wall when Olivia levels a false sexual harassment allegation against Rob, who rejects her advances.

In a comedy about sex and marriage, it's only natural that Catastrophe would address the issue of fidelity, and it looks like that's where season three might be headed. But, for a show that has taken sexism seriously in all other respects, Olivia's decision to punish Rob by turning him into HR is a serious tonal misstep. Considering that fewer than 2% of harassment cases are false — yet women brave enough to come forward face a litany of social and legal shaming — it's difficult to find humor in the old "bitches be crazy!" punchline. It's the equivalent of an off-putting rape joke in a really good set of stand-up comedy — and even Patton Oswald came around on that one.

This season has down-shifted to a darker place, daring to tackle real issues with Horgan and Delaney's signature black humor. The first season is a genuine marvel, suggesting that sexual chemistry might be enough to hang a relationship on —as long as both parties are willing to make sacrifices. Now, in its second, Catastrophe is perhaps more important for it depiction of a supportive, flawed partnership. Rob and Sharon are no Ben and Leslie from Parks & Rec or Jim and Pam from The Office — they lack the sweetness, for starters. But their ability to weather the endless give and take of a long-term relationship might make them more of a miracle than the misfits they're written to be.
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