‘Catastrophe’ Takes on the Horror That Comes With Love, Marriage and Babies

Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are funny people who have made a funny sitcom that's laced with an honesty that hurts.

When I read that Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney were making a sitcom together, my first thought was, fuck yeah!

Horgan is very funny. She had a brilliant turn as the attractive but unattainable guest booker on the fictional panel show behind Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive and was also solid as the object of yet another crush in David Cross’s The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. She appeared as various characters on Psychobitches, where famous women from history and fiction chat with their therapist. Playing Carmen Miranda and giving a dramatic dance entrance in Psychobitches, her response to a question about her mood swings was to whip out her maracas and say, “Sometimes I feel a little bit chicky chicky chicky chicky chicky chicky boom.”

Of course, she’s most well known for Pulling, the critically acclaimed BBC Three show about three single women, which she starred in and co-wrote with Dennis Kelly. She’s been a part of others shows, such as Free Agents and Dead Boss, as either a writer, actor, or both, and has comedy awards out the wazoo. She’s also written Divorce, a show recently picked up by HBO, on which she will serve as executive producer through her company, Merman (Nellie Andreeva, “Sarah Jessica Parker Comedy Pilot ‘Divorce’ Picked Up to Series by HBO”, Deadline, 16 April 2015).

Delaney, of course, is the Funniest Person on Twitter (this is a legal fact apparently, according to the 2012 Comedy Awards at Comedy Central). It’s very easy to lose track of a couple of hours of one’s life while scrolling through his Twitter feed (that’s @robdelaney, though I’m sure you already follow him). His tweets range from the crude (“The only thing I miss about being a teenager is my friends asking me to smell their fingers. My adult bros always hog that nectar”) to satirical (“My cousin claims she’s a feminist but I checked her iPod & there’s no Beyoncé on it. Should I tell her employer or just throw paint at her?”) to just silly (“Question: How would I know if I’m in The Polyphonic Spree?”). Beyond the Twittersphere, he is a comedian and writer, who last year published his memoir, Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

So yeah, two very funny people writing a sitcom called Catastrophe is definitely good news. It’s about a fling between two strangers that produces a pregnancy, you say? Hmm, it’s been done before, but okay, if it’s Horgan and Delaney, I’m in. It’s bound to be a bit raunchy with piss takes galore.

I watched it. I was not disappointed, but I was a little bit surprised.

Series One premiered in the UK earlier this year and is currently available in the US on Amazon Prime. It is very funny, there’s no doubt about that. We meet Sharon, an Irish school teacher, and Rob, a Boston ad man in London on business, and witness their six day shag-a-thon. When it comes time for Rob to fly back to the States, they say their goodbyes (he says he’ll remember her as “an extraordinarily good smelling woman with a magical ass” and she calls him “a sturdy lovemaker with a massive chin”) and part ways.

Until 32 days later, when her name, Sharon (London Sex), comes up on his cell phone, and she announces she’s pregnant. He promises he’ll come back because he “helped [her] make a mistake and will now help [her] figure it out.” The rest of the series is about how they figure it out.

This includes the awkward announcements, uncomfortable doctor appointments, pregnancy sex, and the inevitable marriage proposal. It includes the introduction of funny supporting characters, such as Sharon’s uptight, snobby frenemy Fran (Ashley Jensen) and her husband Chris (Mark Bonnar), a sympathetic but also kind of creepy guy. We also meet Dave (Daniel Lapaine), an old friend of Rob’s, who lives in London and is pretty much a stereotypical American prick.

No one really thinks the couple’s plans are wise. Sharon’s family finds the predicament pretty pathetic, and Rob’s mother (Carrie Fisher) advises via phone calls that Rob’s best option is basically to just get the hell home.

Of course, that’s not what Rob does. Series One ends with a wedding, and Series Two (which just finished on Channel 4 in the UK) opens with a time jump of a few years, and Rob and Sharon are still together. Would this happen in real life? No, probably not. Of course, this isn’t real life, it’s a sitcom — a very funny and yes, occasionally raunchy, sitcom.

What surprised me, though, was its honesty — its harsh, sometimes scary and sometimes sad, honesty. The two characters are sharing an intimate, life-changing event, and they don’t even know each other. When Rob asks her to marry him, Sharon can’t deny the reality of their situation:

Rob: I think you should marry me.

Sharon: What? Are you mental?

Rob: Marry me and find out.

Sharon: Why? I mean, I literally don’t know who you are. I mean, seriously, who are you? Do you have a middle name? Can you ride a horse? Did a priest ever fiddle with you? These are things I don’t know.

Rob: Clifford. Yes. And no, but a nun did stay in the room with me when I changed out of dirty underpants once.

Sharon: God, oh … aren’t you supposed to fall in love first?

Rob: Well, my mom sent me an article about a study on arranged marriages versus love marriages and they found that fewer arranged marriages end in divorce than real ones.

Sharon: Is that because they end in suicide?

The process of their getting to know one other, complicated a bit by their cultural differences, is quite sweet to watch; they are romantic but in practical ways. When Sharon wakes Rob up in the middle of the night because she’s worried about everything that can go wrong — from the baby being born with a weird-shaped head to an Italian chef talking while gesticulating and accidentally stabbing her in the stomach — he does his best to reassure her, by talking himself into a frenzy, listing all the horrible things happening in the world. This puts her to sleep but leaves him distraught.

Rob’s adjusting to being in a new country where he doesn’t really know anyone. To ease his loneliness, he accidentally starts secretly dating Fran’s husband. He’s also got to convince his Boston bosses that all is going well at the London office (it’s not, really).

Sharon’s got her own adjusting to do, too. This isn’t what she thought her life would be, and running into an ex with a successful wife and happy life ramps up her insecurity. The pregnancy reveals a new health issue (it’s not cancer, but the word cancer appears a dozen times in the doctor’s explanation), and she struggles with her body’s changes and mood swings (at work she keeps “getting that weird feeling like I might cry or come”).

Everything in both of their lives is not what it was before they met.

Of course, this is all occurring as they are heading for the most daunting of changes: becoming parents. Chris warns Rob to avoid being there at the birth or he’ll never forgive Sharon (“You see a little troll tobogganing out of your wife’s snatch on a wave of turds and part of you will hold her responsible.”) Sharon is classified as a geriatric mother, which isn’t the most flattering of terms, but more importantly means that the risks are higher that something could go wrong.

In Episode Four, the couple have to face the possibility of a baby with Down Syndrome. It’s a painfully honest episode — even amid the sex scenes and silly misunderstandings, nothing hides the harsh reality. When they are warned they might need to prepare for a “substantially different child rearing experience”, their fear is palpable as they try to decide whether or not they’re good enough people to raise a disabled child. I didn’t expect the Funniest Person on Twitter to make me cry.

The changes that Series Two brings will hopefully be met in the same honest but hilarious way. Of course, we mustn’t forget that we’re watching a sitcom and sitcoms aren’t real, which explains why Sharon is still rocking a gorgeous bod and how they are able to afford a picture-perfect home. After the first episode, journalist Rachel Cooke worried that the “previously magnificent wonky relationship sitcom might be in danger of becoming a little bit smug .. To make a pearl, you need grit and I am wondering where that little bit of necessary sand is going to come from this time around” (“Smug marrieds: Has Sharon Horgan’s and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe Lost its Edge?, New Statesmen, 29 October 2015).

However, the couple do have new challenges to face: the reality of parenthood and the way it changes each of them and their relationship. The supporting characters’ stories are also getting more development this series — Rob’s mother comes to stay, Sharon’s dad seems to be showing signs of dementia, and Chris and Fran’s marriage has properly imploded. The feel of this series is a bit different, but this makes sense because the characters are growing, which is what would happen in the real world (even if it rarely does in sitcoms).

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney did not let me down. They’ve made a very funny sitcom about modern life and love. Anyone born before 1975 will recognise much of what the characters are going through. Personally, I think it should be required viewing in high school health classes (teachers can edit out the swears, if they must) as it will quickly dispel any young person’s idealism about romance (or their ignorance of the consequences of unprotected sex) . Catastrophe doesn’t mock love or the desire for it, but it doesn’t deny that relationships, even when they work, can be quite messy.