There's a good chance you've heard of Amazon's half-hour sitcom Catastrophe by now. And there's a good chance that everything you've heard has been overwhelmingly positive: the show has been hailed as the "rom com of the year," "a rom-com dream," and the start of a "romantic comedy revolution." My expectations were high, and I watched the (way too short) six-episode series in a rush of anticipation. But it still managed to surprise me: this isn't what I expected the romantic comedy revolution to look like. But I'll take it.
The premise of Catastrophe is simple: Rob (played by Twitter favorite Rob Delaney) is an American who accidentally gets a one-night stand (Sharon Horgan) pregnant during a business trip to London. So Rob moves across the Atlantic, and he and Sharon try to make their relationship work, largely through a process of finger-crossing and forced coupledom. Everything that follows is done in the hopes of creating a monogamous, stable relationship. Rob looks for a job, Sharon gets an ultrasound.
As far as sitcoms go, Catastrophe is minimalist
In the hands of other actors, this could've been dangerous territory. Take the show too far in a bumbling-couple-takes-the-fast-track-to-adulthood direction, and you've got Knocked Up. Take it too far in another, and you've got a Lifetime special about pregnancy after 40. But Catastrophe is neither of these things, because Delaney and Horgan keep things teetering on a crooked fault line somewhere between chaos and comedy. That fault line is just the natural reality of life (the tendency of humans to be dumb and selfish and scared), but most comedies can't seem to explore such mundane truths without throwing a bunch of wacky shit at it. As far as sitcoms go, Catastrophe is minimalist.
Delaney and Horgan co-wrote the show, but they're also its main characters, and their relationship is pretty much the entire plot. Catastrophe's forward thrust is based on their pre-existing relationship; there's no "will they or won't they", because they already have. And that's what makes Catastrophe so unexpected: it's a sitcom about one couple, who are a couple by the time the first episode ends, and who, presumably, will remain a couple until the end of the series.
Nothing about this structure suggests it will work. Because of its one-relationship focus, the show plays like a feature-length movie. More often than not, network sitcoms that try to do this — Selfie, Manhattan Love Story — get canceled. Shows like The Mindy Project and New Girl lean on buddy comedy tropes and kitschy side-characters to cushion their true-love plotlines. There is some of this in Catastrophe — Rob's ribald friend Dave, Sharon's tragically obtuse friend Fran — but it's a small group without real storylines of their own, who seem to exist mainly for laughs.
There's no "will they or won't they" because they already have
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Delaney noted that there was only one scene in the first six episodes that didn't feature either him or Horgan. But it's this kind of detailed, intimate continuity with the two main characters that makes Catastrophe work. Delaney and Horgan force the audience to watch the smallest progressions of their love — in one scene, Rob clips Sharon's toenails — and rather than feel like a waste of time, it's charming and rewarding. Horgan and Delaney's chemistry is warm and easy, and their relationship, while not being exactly ideal, is pleasantly sufficient. A big part of Catastrophe's plot is not that Sharon and Rob are in love, rather, they've just decided that this is the relationship they're going to stick with. So we agree to stick with it, too.
But all this romantic singularity raises the question: how far can this show actually go? Catastrophe is smart, irreverent, and refreshingly disabused of any notion of soulmates or the miracle of pregnancy. It's been renewed for a second season, but how do you keep an audience invested in a single couple over the course of several seasons? I'm convinced if anyone can do it, Delaney and Horgan can, but somewhere along the way, the initial premise might find itself wearing thin. Will the show still get mileage out of Sharon's irritation and Rob's doofy optimism after a few years of marriage?
In the final episode, Rob and Sharon's relationship doesn't exactly seem stable, but there's also never any real fear they're going to break up. The stakes — other than an impending baby — are pretty low, so there's not much incentive for Catastrophe to break its mold. The relationship now is fresh and unpredictable, but what happens when Rob and Sharon (and the fans who love them) get past the honeymoon phase? I only ask because I don't want to wake up one day and realize this was all just infatuation.