TV’s best rom-com, Catastrophe, returned for its third season on Friday, April 28, a little sadder and saggier — but no less lovable or hysterical. The Amazon series stars comedians Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney playing a married couple (imaginatively named Sharon and Rob) who decide to stay together after a weeklong fling ends with a pregnancy. Season 3 finds the two about four years into their romance — and with around a combined 80 years’ worth of pent-up horniness, resentments, and the need to make their beloved laugh.
Below, three of MTV News’ pop-culture critics discuss the undeniable #relationshipgoals-iness of Sharon and Rob’s TV marriage, including its bracingly candid body humor, its particular way of handling tougher subject matter, and how the two compare to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
[This roundtable conversation spoils the entirety of Season 3.]
Inkoo Kang: Is Catastrophe still a romantic comedy? The show has never been afraid to tackle darker issues like cancer, adultery, and divorce, but Season 3 was still surprisingly sad. But the series thankfully never felt like a downer, largely because the (many, many) issues that Rob and Sharon are dealing with this year — his alcoholism and being stuck between a desperately unhappy job and emasculation via unemployment; her father’s death and feelings of guilt after cheating (for about two seconds); the possibility of not being able to afford their house anymore — feel poignantly specific to a couple in their forties. Middle age comes at you hard (I assume). It was lovely to watch Rob and Sharon lean on each other — or try to spare the other some unnecessary pain — as they were rocked with the, er, catastrophe of the week.
I’ll confess that the birdlike Chris just does something to my lady organs, but I also loved every scene in which Rob huffily declared that he’d like to do something reckless, like leave Sharon when she finally admitted to touching that college kid’s dick penis, but he won’t because he’s a fucking grown-up. So much of pop culture, especially from an upper-middle-class white male POV, is about the need to regain “freedom” from the shackles of stultifying domesticity. Season 3 showed how Rob hates his corporate career (he even ran away from Taco Friday), but took pride in himself as a man — and even a lover — for saying “fuck you” to the temptation of self-absorption. And the show really got me when Sharon told Rob that she loved him because he’s a “good person.” (Are my standards for romance too low?)
Rachel Handler: Inkoo, I am dyin’ over your Chris admission. Though, honestly, now that I’m thinking more about it, he’s the only man on the show who could potentially get it. That scene in which he sits down on the sidewalk next to the bathrobe-clad, drunk-ass Rob really did it for me.
Anyway, is Catastrophe still a rom-com? I think it is, and it fits into Jen Chaney’s theory in her Vulture piece, in which she talks about how the rom-com isn’t dead, it just looks a little different than it used to. The comedy in Catastrophe isn’t just in its witty dialogue, or absurd moments, or slapstick outdoor sex scenes — it’s baked into the way that the characters respond to each other. Like, yes, people are dying of strokes and getting into alcohol-induced automobile accidents, but even in these awful moments, Sharon and Rob find each other endlessly amusing (except, you know, when they want to destroy each other). That, to me, is romantic (and funny) as hell. I am obsessed with the way that Sharon Horgan, the actress, laughs at Rob Delaney’s jokes. She registers such authentic surprise and delight, and that makes me feel those things, too — how often do you get to watch two characters just enjoy the fuck out of each other?
A few of the moments that really got me: When Sharon and Rob are discussing his idea for an app that overlays a ’70s bush onto hairless porn actresses, and she says, “I’m being deadly serious now, that is a fucking brilliant idea”; when they’re having a somber conversation about being grateful for what they have, because there are Chinese children starving, and Rob deadpans, “Well, I don’t care about Chinese people,” and Sharon bursts out laughing. It’s also extremely romantic to me that neither of them takes themselves or one another too seriously — like when Rob mocks Sharon for being a “cosmopolitan clothes fiend that consciously left Ireland to come here and shop,” and she replies, “You really think I’m cosmopolitan?” The romance and the comedy in this show both come from the same place: Rob and Sharon making each other laugh, even when shit is utterly terrible.
Leah Beckmann: I have called the police and reported both of you for inappropriate horniness for Chris. Please stay where you are; someone will arrive shortly. Don’t struggle.
I really loved the way the show followed Rob’s descent into alcoholism. In real life, Delaney has talked openly about a terrible car accident that “involved blacking out and driving straight into the L.A. Department of Water and Power building. He broke his right arm and left wrist; both his knees were cut to the bone.” So, as rock bottom as you can get. Obviously the accident in the show is a minor one compared to that, but the panic and fear that we see on his face and on Sharon’s as the episode ends is crushing. It is also one of the best moments of the season, and possibly of the show in general. There is so much love and anger and fear wrapped up in Sharon’s embrace of Rob as they wait for the police to arrive; to me, it is what the show does best.
At this point it’s rote to say that Catastrophe strikes a perfect balance between humor and heartbreak, but I guess I’m a rote-ass bitch, because it really does. Almost everything that falls under that White People Have Real Problems Too genre — Togetherness; Horgan’s other show, Divorce; anything Judd Apatow; even Transparent — makes me incredibly anxious, especially when those shows depict the existential dread that comes with the hell of midlife, with marriage, kids, and a career. By maintaining that humor and heartbreak balance, Catastrophe never makes me feel that. As soon as I start to think, Dear god please no more jokes about how their sex life has dried up or about how saggy Sharon’s boobs are, there’s Rob, assuring her that yeah, her body is shutting down and her boobs might not be the ones he imagined as a hormonal teen, but they’re attached to her, and he loves them.
Theirs is a relationship that feels honest, fucked up, and, more than anything, fun. When Sharon isn’t fondling 22-year-old wang and Rob isn’t secretly drinking, it’s a relationship that, I don’t know, seems healthy, even. The more I think about it, Catastrophe is a rom-com in the most traditional sense: It makes you long for the relationship you see onscreen. Sure, they’re not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but they’ll do.
Kang: Rachel, I’m so glad you brought up that line about Sharon being a “cosmopolitan clothes fiend,” because the series seems to have disappointingly retconned Rob’s feelings about his wife’s wardrobe. I seem to remember Rob and his mom (R.I.P. Carrie Fisher) sneering at — or at least being baffled by — Sharon’s wedding ensemble, especially her very British hat. I liked Rob and Sharon’s dynamic more when her boho-mumsy, “Laura Ashley on steroids” sense of fashion was one more thing Rob liked because it was Sharon’s, not because they’re “objectively” appealing.
Speaking of Hanks and Ryan, one of the most delightful improvements that Catastrophe and today’s other rom-coms have made on what we generally think of as the second golden age of rom-coms (of the ’80s and ’90s, with the first being the screwballs of the ’30s) is the sexual frankness. That “your breasts will always be great because they’re yours” conversation was fiercely romantic, as was Rob’s declaration of love for the smell and taste of his wife’s pussy.
But I also love that the show is honest about how sexual attraction amid cohabitation can amount to cognitive dissonance. Hairy nipples, stinky poops, and the “dead glop” that is infertile semen are just part of the background in the Morris-Norris household — as are late-night shame meals of half a dozen ham-wrapped hot dogs. (Ew.) A good marriage is about having someone so willing to look past your grossness that you can delude yourself into starting a modeling career at 40.
We’ve already discussed Chris’s incontrovertible hotness, but let’s talk about the friends as a group. Do you find the subplots involving Chris, Fran, drug addict Dave, and flighty, pyromaniac Kate — all of whom are on the verge of various breakdowns — engaging?
Handler: First of all, I am here for every single thing Sharon wears. It is all demented and gorgeous. I’m also generally just here for everything she does and says. Is it #problematic that I hope to be Sharon (the character, though obviously I would subsume the life of the IRL Sharon too) when I grow up, 22-year-old-wang-grabbing and all? I digress, let us return to the fashion: I’m truly considering expanding my pajama wardrobe to include kimonos so that I can look more artfully disheveled during my workday. Both of her (faux?) fur coats are incredible, I am devastated that I will likely never be able to find them online, and I have been thinking about them all morning. This is not a joke. If anybody knows where I can buy Sharon’s coats, please get at me, this is an emergency.
To your actual question, Inkoo: Catastrophe works so well, in part, because it’s so tight (insert Sharon Pussy Joke here), but I think the friend subplots suffer a little because of it. I would watch a full bottle episode about the life of Chris and Fran’s straight-to-DVD child-star son, or following Dave as he attempts to relearn the English language, or centering on Chris and Inkoo having a midday picnic. So, yes, I think the subplots are engaging and funny, but sometimes they feel a little underserved. The only one I didn’t love this season was Fran’s attempt to get back into the dating world via face-lift and fucking her plastic surgeon; it just felt sort of uncreative, especially since Catastrophe usually avoids veering into cliches so well.
And, obviously, I wanted more of Carrie Fisher. Not just because we lost her last year, but because she is so dark and weird and mean and perfect on this show, and I can’t stand it that she was only in one episode. I do love that they had her angrily lecture Rob about his alcoholism, rather than launch into some empathetic, after-school-special monologue, which, considering her history, would’ve been a cheap (though probably effective) ploy for our tears. I also really would’ve enjoyed a scene or two with Carrie and Sharon’s mom, alone in Ireland, debating whether to have a late-in-life lesbian affair out of pure convenience. Hm, honestly, this is its own show.
I also wanted to share my favorite lines/moments that made me laugh out loud this season. There were so many little throwaways that destroyed me, like when Sharon idly referenced Frankie falling asleep with a potato, when she asked Rob when Thanksgiving was in the middle of their massive argument (“sorry, I’ll look it up”), and their argument about Alan Turing. The Fat Johnny Depp thing is going to haunt me for the rest of my days, in the best possible way, as is the way that Rob called Wolfe “Woof.”
Kang: My favorite one-liner from Season 3: “You’ve never tried heroin? I thought you were from Glasgow.”
Beckmann: I wish Sharon was plagued with vaginal disease and was forced to visit her gynecologist (what is up, Captain Jack Randall) once an episode. I love that dynamic. The way she softly apologizes when he tells her that her left nipple is cockeyed is perfect. Other favorite moments: anything Ashley Jensen says or does, but specifically the scene when she rushes Sharon off the phone to watch The View and farts into her couch; Frankie happily watching Million Dollar Baby; Fergal flipping through pictures of Spain: “That’s not our cat. That’s just some Spanish cat.” And finally, the way Carrie Fisher spun around and hissed, “I looked like Nanook of the North!” was a tiny, brilliant little parting gift to us all.