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Your leader in the clubhouse for comedies in 2016 is Catastrophe on Amazon.
Yes, the HBO powerhouses of Veep and Silicon Valley have yet to premiere and television is already plump with comedy goodness, but few shows have put an exclamation point on their magnificence quite like Catastrophe does with the six outstanding episodes comprising its second season.
Air date: Apr 08, 2016
I can’t remember the last time I watched six episodes of anything and wanted to watch all six again — maybe Arrested Development? — yet I did just that with Catastrophe and laughed (and cringed) all over again; it was an exercise that brought to the surface the more subtle aspects of the show that can get lost in the overall viewing experience.
Part of this desire to immerse myself again in all six episodes has to do with how effortlessly quickly Catastrophe runs through its stories. This is both validation that creators, writers and stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney are putting on a master-class performance of the problematic romantic comedy (prob-com?) and a clear signal that the duo needs to expand their seasons immediately.
If there is a complaint to be made about Catastrophe, that’s the key one — two six-episode seasons are not even close to enough. This series may have started out in England (Channel 4) and was then embraced in a co-production deal with Amazon Studios, but if it’s going to air in this country, we need a little more sweat; six may be a British ideal but it’s like an American vacation. And hell, having now broken all the way through the insanely crowded field of contenders, a third season should capitalize on that hard-earned success.
Back in the present, what’s so rewarding about the start-to-finish top-notch quality of Catastrophe in its second season is that even with a strong first season it was impossible to rule out a fluke situation; stranger things have happened. I ranked the first season 18th in my 2015 year-end best-of list, which is, given the state of television, a phenomenal achievement even if I arguably could have ranked it even higher. But that’s the trouble with six as opposed to 13 or, in the case of broadcast networks doing fine work with comedy, 22 episodes — it wasn’t much history. To know that season two is even better — more assured, deeper, more challenging, while still being as funny and bitter and painfully true to life — is very reassuring.
If you’re new to Catastrophe, there’s not much you need to worry about having spoiled; this is basically an after-the-fact story. The premise is that Irish schoolteacher Sharon (Horgan) meets American businessman Rob (Delaney) at a London bar, much sex ensues and after he returns to the States, he gets the call that Sharon is pregnant.
Since they’re not 22, the duo try to make a go of it; life is unexpected and hard but rewarding in itself so, if you’re in it you might as well go for it. Season 1 is about having the baby. Season 2 is about having another one, and a dog, and encroaching families of origin (Carrie Fisher plays Rob’s troublesome mother) and how all of that makes having a relationship pretty damned difficult.
Horgan and Delaney, both married to other people and both parents, know this terrain very well and it shows not only in every episode, but every conversation, unspoken glance and petty (and not so petty) fight.
There’s always been romance in Catastrophe — Horgan and Delaney have fantastic chemistry — but it’s not exactly built as a rom-com. The duo have a fine-tuned sense of what two funny, quick-witted and snarky people might be like as a couple, which is a combination of hilariously in-tune (and thus romantic and lovely to each other) and nastily at odds when the mood turns. In short, they are getting into the deep cuts of a marriage. And now, in the second season, baby No. 2 complicates things.
“Two kids and a dog. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. Apparently,” Horgan says to her old teacher friends, as she’s dying to get back to work. Horgan is deadly accurate with her comic timing, the “apparently” so telling and funny. Her brash comedic bent and easy, loud, infectious laugh is a good counterpart to Delaney’s more deadpan, dry sense of humor. There are numerous examples of this, but my favorite in season two is watching Rob try to be understanding about the fact that the new baby’s name is so Irish he (or anyone else not Irish) can’t pronounce it. It’s a funny, giving joke.
But Catastrophe is unparalleled in its use of the exasperated rant, which both characters employ, the words coming out furiously, like daggers, but at a controlled pace so that the heat of the anger doesn’t overwhelm the message. Because if there’s anything Sharon and Rob are keen to do it’s get their point across to everyone in a slice-and-dice, I-was-right kind of way.
At a family dinner, Sharon’s coming apart as her brother Fergal (Jonathan Forbes) is rightly worried that their father seems to be losing it, and what should they do about it?
“My tits are leaking, three people in this house wear nappies, and I’m one of them — I have to keep babies alive,” Sharon shouts, exasperated. “So I’m going to be able to think about other people in about six months or so. Can you deal with it?”
Fergal, walking away: “Yeah, yeah — I’ll fix his dementia.”
It’s one of those scenes that illustrates how Catastrophe is now clicking on multiple levels: Horgan is funny, the topics are serious (being overwhelmed, your parents regressing) and Fergal is proof that the expanded cast deserves more material, because they all nail it (especially true of Mark Bonnar as Chris this year as he and Fran, wonderfully played by Ashley Jensen, split further apart).
And that scene takes less than 20 seconds to unfold. There are all kinds of small gems in this show.
So much of Catastrophe can’t be quoted because, well, it’s filthy and hilariously wrong and painfully right; and sometimes it’s more than just all the swear words we couldn’t print and something akin to needing to be there. Horgan and Delaney know how to riff; a long dissection of why taking a lover never works is a new classic.
The real meat of Catastrophe is in the hard spots of life. But the series also gets all the throwaway jokes, as when Sharon says to other moms, “I feel numb, which is good.” Or when Rob calls Sharon on the bedroom politics of married couples: “Sexual rain checks are abusive!”
As mentioned previously, the show flies by. There’s a scene in Paris where the couple, finally out on a date night by themselves, implodes. The restaurant scene is harrowing and funny and sweet. And near the end, after leaking through her dress and drunk-crying and feeling regretful, Sharon says, “Order me the Frenchiest thing on the menu,” and Rob responds with: “OK, like a cigarette stabbed through a baguette?”
Or when Rob thinks he’s done something good and spontaneous by shaking up their anniversary date and Sharon says, “What, did you throw a dart at a shit-ideas board?”
There is much to love here. There is arguably more to love than last season, which seems almost inconceivable. So that’s two tremendous, rewarding seasons for Catastrophe. Now if Horgan and Delaney could just make one season as long as two, we might start approaching perfection.
Created, written by and starring: Sharon Horgan, Rob Delaney
Also starring: Ashley Jensen, Mark Bonnar, Jonathan Forbes, Marta Barrio, Seeta Indrani, Daniel Lapaine
Available for streaming: Friday (Amazon)
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