‘Catastrophe’ is a Wonderful Love Story About Drowning

The closing track of the Japandroids’ second album, Celebration Rock, is a song called “Continuous Thunder”. This is one of my favorite love songs in existence. It’s loud, it’s sweet, it’s corny, and it acknowledges that love is a messy reckless endeavor. It’s two people willing to go arm in arm out into a storm, knowing that rough conditions are what brought them closer together. The message isn’t that love triumphs in hardship. It’s that love is boring without it.

“Continuous Thunder” played in my head after watching the series finale of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s excellent and aptly titled romantic comedy, Catastrophe. This show (originally aired on Britain’s Channel 4 and available for streaming on Amazon Prime) gave us four seasons of comic buoyancy around a relationship begging to sink. The show’s final moment is a summation of the entire series and marriage writ large — a wide shot that harkens back to the last scene featuring another one of TV’s most memorable couples, Tami and Coach Taylor. Both shows ended with a similar message for the one you love: There are two constants in life. One of them is struggle. I need the other one to be you. 

The beauty of Catastrophe is it delivers that message without ever being as cheesy as I just made it. The show is a blunt, mature exposition of a relationship when you strip it of any romanticized narratives. What’s left is the banality of love — the work. It’s two people who like each other at their best that they’re willing to accept each other at their worst. The show wades through financial stress, cancer scares, alcoholism, infidelity, and death, using comedy as its vessel. The jokes aren’t meant to bring levity to darker subject matter. They are in service to the complexity of our emotional response to heavier issues. Despite our efforts to tie grief and joy to demons and saints respectively, none of us are that simple. We’re allowed to have conflicting emotions and not know why. Or as Horgan’s character puts it to Delaney’s when he tries to pretend otherwise, “Oh, God, you don’t have to be so American about it.” 

Catastrophe gives our vulnerabilities its due respect. You will lash out at your partner or be a tremendous coward from time to time the same way you’ll walk through fire for them. It’s the erraticism of bouncing between the two that lends itself to humor. And when you have two incredibly fearless comedians writing in this space, every joke comes with brutal honesty.

The co-creators would keep their forenames to play two people with rhyming surnames: Rob Norris and Sharon Morris (“Morris and Norris. Well at least that’s fucking ridiculous.”), a couple in their early forties brought together by an accidental pregnancy. 

Rob, an American advertising executive visiting London on business, meets Sharon, an Irish-born school teacher, in an obnoxiously loud bar. Rob immediately confesses that he’s not drinking on account of being an alcoholic who hit rock bottom after shitting his pants at his sister’s wedding. As a man who nearly shit his pants at his sister’s wedding, I envied watching two single adults having zero interest in guarded flirtation. It disarms each other from being anything but themselves. And if you’re lucky enough to like yourself, that’s not so bad.

As suggested, the two enjoy a one-night stand that casually turns into a reckless week-long sexcapade before Rob flies back to America. Soon enough, Sharon finds out she’s pregnant and Rob returns to London on a work visa to figure it all out with her. Feeling her time is limited to have children, Sharon decides to keep the baby and Rob commits to her decision. These two aren’t sure of each other, Sharon more than Rob, but the situation calls for them to at least try. This lingering doubt in each other becomes a hallmark of the show. Even in the third season you discover Rob still has Sharon in his phone as “Sharon London sex” — a funny, but telling nod to their relationship’s uncertainty. 

But another trademark of the show, and what makes you root for Rob and Sharon to the bitter end, is just how much they like being with one another. The characters on Catastrophe get to do something refreshing, and ironically rare in comedy: they laugh at each other’s jokes. It might be because the actors are so funny that they can’t help it, but the show has made a choice to suspend dialogue or linger on a scene for these people to exchange genuine laughter. As a viewer, it’s not something you thought you’d appreciate until you see it.

Watching a couple buried under the problems they’ve unloaded onto each other, lying in bed laughing together is the thing that makes you keep hoping these two make it, because it’s the thing that makes you keep hoping you make it. It’s an acknowledgement that whatever it is, it’ll be fine. That can’t be promised nor is it always true, but sometimes hearing it is enough. 

Each episode’s parade of dry witticisms is what makes the conflicts sneak up on you, sort of like…real life. How could this couple be saying such vicious things to each other when moments ago Sharon was pleading for Rob to watch Game of Thrones with her so she doesn’t have to “watch it alone, like a pervert”? 

Their fights can get cringeworthy. Rob has thinner skin than Sharon, and it causes him to return her hurtful remarks with devastating cruelty. It’s the type of fighting that television shows with younger characters, i.e. Girls, would trigger a season-long breakup. But in Catastrophe, Sharon and Rob’s life — kids, a mortgage, actual problems — doesn’t grant them the luxury of time and space to heal their wounds. They have to choose one or the other. It’s another more experienced lesson from this lewd romantic comedy bucking the genre’s usual slate of characters in their twenties: you will always fight like children, but you have to face the problem like a grownup.   

Catastrophe’s nimbleness from happiness to indifference to contempt is a credit to great writing, but also creating characters that are far more interested in being vulnerable than heroic. These middle-aged people are over the idea that romance is cool. No, truth is cool. The rest is sweet, but ultimately kind of silly.

Some of the best moments of the show are Rob and Sharon sticking up for each other despite how embarrassingly wrong or petty they look. Taking a cue from Rob, if you see people at the multiplex who hurt your wife’s feelings, go up to them and spoil the ending of the movie they’re standing in line for. Sometimes the best way to be your partner’s hero is to make a complete fool of yourself. 

I am sad to see this show end, but it’s better than seeing it go too long. Horgan and Delaney made their point, and they stuck the landing in a spectacular final scene that provided an enormous metaphor for what brought them together in the first place. They plunge into hazardous circumstances, but once again, they do it together.   

Catastrophe ended with its best and most consistent joke. Life is full of burdens that can drown you. Be with the person you want to take down with you.

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