'Catastrophe' Season 4: TV Review

One of the best.
3/15/2019

The Sharon Horgan/Rob Delaney series on Amazon — so great that the most common complaint is that it should have had more episodes — ends its run with a brilliant season four.

There are a lot of bittersweet moments in the fourth and final season of Amazon's Catastrophe, the brilliant but oh-too-short comedy about Rob, an American businessman, who got Sharon, an Irish woman working as a schoolteacher in England, pregnant on a business trip, leading the two to decide to try to make it work — but maybe none more so than the long shot of Rob's iPhone going off and "Sharon London Sex" popping up as her descriptor one final time.

In the series, the disparate duo find a way to make it work, with love, comedy, brutal jokes, the realism of life's hardships, raising kids (yeah, they had another one) and managing their different personalities. Sharon (Sharon Horgan) can be mean and selfish and Rob (Rob Delaney), a former alcoholic who lapses badly in season three, can be gruff and also mean, but there is a lot of hard-earned love that makes it all work; a core truth of Catastrophe is that it derives much of its humor from the rough patches of life, especially in regards to marriage, and the series succeeds particularly, keenly well in part thanks to the amount of love evinced between the two of them — which is notably but realistically less than in pretty much any other series depicting a marriage.

In that less artificial TV happiness was a balance that viewers could relate to. The last six episodes of Catastrophe are not unlike the 18 that came before — often brilliant, relentlessly hilarious and searing in the process, depicting one of TV's best and most unexpected pairings of two actors (also the creators and writers, of course), who somehow made their coupling, as unromantic as it was, believable, with every episode over the course of the series run giving off an authenticity that allowed viewers to think, "Yeah, I can see how this works for them, even when it's not working." A nice trick, that.

This final season picks up just after the third one ended with Rob, having fallen off the wagon, getting in a car accident while picking up Sharon from a night out; she realizes then that it has all imploded. As season four begins, Rob is sporting a neck brace — "It was kind of like a powerful turtleneck," Sharon says later when it comes off — and the rockiness of their marriage, the central theme of season three, understandably continues here.

There's no point in having any spoilers, and it's fair just to say that Horgan and Delaney do a fine job servicing the stories around the other characters in the series, and they do their best to give viewers a sense of the future that Rob and Sharon will have without it feeling either definitive or vague (though they did leave in some curious stylistic choices in the final episode that might unnecessarily raise questions). But overall, the story remains true to itself, which brings up the one overriding issue that still nags at Catastrophe after four seasons but a mere 24 episodes: It could have, and arguably should have, been a series with a longer episode run. 

Ultimately part of that was tragically unavoidable as Delaney's two-and-a-half-year-old son, Henry, died in 2018 from a brain tumor. Delaney has written poignantly and bravely about his son's death. And what we got over the span of these four six-episodes seasons is enough to create an enduring legacy.

But Catastrophe often felt like a story interrupted in mid-sentence in the early going, which was especially unfortunate because it was, from the very first episode, legitimately great: an achievement in concept and execution that Horgan and Delaney might not have initially expected from their little show, a Channel 4-Amazon entity that, like a lot of British series, felt comfortable being told over those six initial episodes, without much expectation. But as Horgan in particular kept writing for other places (Motherland, Women on the Verge, HBO's Divorce) — and none of them matched the transcendent quality of Catastrophe — each season became discernibly more abrupt than the last. There was a sense of missed opportunities.

The first take on Catastrophe should always be that it was instantly and sustainably great, but it's necessary to follow that up immediately with the notion that it could have been so much more. Part of that constriction in the storytelling is evident in this final season, where Horgan and Delaney have to get their characters from someplace awful in season three to someplace at least slightly better if not perfect in season four — though the mystery is always whether the duo will feel compelled to push their characters off a cliff, as an unhappy ending might be too alluring and realistic to avoid. And so they were confronted with making a major arc out of six episodes and also paying homage to Carrie Fisher, who played Rob's mother, Mia (and they do a lovely job of that), while also wrapping up peripheral stories. And that's a lot for six half-hour episodes.

Fran (Ashley Jensen) and Chris (Mark Bonnar) are fully addressed; Dave (Daniel Lapaine) gets a little something, but maybe not a fully realized arc; and thankfully Fergal (Jonathan Forbes) gets a shining moment or two.

It's not unfair to say that the results are very satisfying; it's also true that more runway would have been nice on either side of these stories.

And yet, if the most damning thing you can say about a series is that it should have had more episodes to better articulate and disseminate its greatness, that's a fate plenty of others would take.

And as Catastrophe season four unfolds, fans will find themselves dying at the exquisitely timed jokes, but this time with a little more appreciation for the craft at hand. For example, they can land the big laughs, as when Sharon wonders if her mother, dating a new man after her father's death, is...active. "Do you think they're having sex?" she asks Rob, who says, "I don't know — she still has her original hips, right?" They can land the awkward bits like nobody else, as when Sharon's doctor (the wonderfully non-plussed Tobias Menzies) asks if everything is fine with her: "(Yes) except the peeing myself thing. It used to only happen when I was trampoline-ing. And now it's just...whatever...as needed." Horgan's ability to deliver lines like that match the excellence Delaney exhibits while angrily concocting responses that usually end with some item being kicked up someone's "asshole," or the equally descriptive and creative retorts like his brain being "a bit of a clown graveyard" after falling off the wagon.

In separate scenes, their delivery skills shine, like when Rob thinks about joining the Quakers because they are so silent: "My wife is not a quiet person. She's Irish, so, at first that's charming and then..." — and his expressive mug delivers the awful truth. Or when Sharon dismissively tells Rob she can't go to an event: "I can't. Because of my condition." Him: "What condition?" Her: "I don't want to."

None of those lines are spoken in the traditional sitcom patois, with the identifiable setup, pause and punchline that have fueled so many comedies through the year. There's a naturalism to the delivery that connects back to these two as disparate, sarcastic characters whose weeklong, sex-filled fling — where he typed her number into his phone as "Sharon London Sex" — resulted in a baby, a decision and ultimately a relationship experiment. What does an accidental marriage look like for people like this? It looks real. You can hear it in the exchanges that make you laugh even when they seem simple (but are not, of course, because of the timing and vocal inflections that are a thing of beauty) — as when Sharon is complaining about work while she and Rob cook in the kitchen: "What are you doing to do about it?" he asks. "I don't know. Be angry. Nothing." Him: "I think those are both great choices."

Sometimes in a marriage you do what's needed to get by. Sometimes what's needed is some funny, bent truth — and Catastrophe gave a fantastic glimpse of that over four seasons. Even if those four seasons, in our dreams, would have been joyfully filled out with another four episodes each.

Cast: Sharon Horgan, Rob Delaney, Ashley Jensen, Mark Bonnar, Jonathan Forbes, Daniel Lapaine, Frances Tomelty, Seeta Indrani, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Chris Noth
Created and written by: Sharon Horgan, Rob Delaney
Premieres: March 15 (Amazon Prime)