Great sex repeated in a constellation of locales is what brings Rob and Sharon together
In a new series, “Catastrophe,” now streaming for Amazon Prime members, an accidental pregnancy leads to romance, personal transformation and awkward conversations with friends and family.
As premises go, it’s nothing earth-shattering – 2007’s successful “Knocked Up” with Seth Rogan and Katharine Heigl probably comes to mind, or maybe you recall 1997’s “Fools Rush In” with Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek. (If you do, I’m sorry. The ’90s were … not always great.)
Even fewer may remember “Accidentally on Purpose,” the Jenna Elfman (“Dharma & Greg”) vehicle that graced CBS for one unfunny season beginning in 2009.
There’s something about riding the love-plus-marriage-plus-baby train backwards that appeals to an entertainment industry eager to portray relationships with all the sexy promise of baggage-free amour and all the comic possibilities of bloating ankles and doctor’s visits.
But “Catastrophe” nudges the pregnancy-passion genre firmly into grownup territory. A clever, warm-hearted and filthy-mouthed rom-com starring writer-creators Sharon Horgan (“Pulling”) and Twitter comedian Rob Delaney, the show originally aired earlier this year on Britain’s Channel 4 to both critical and popular acclaim.
Just six 25-minute episodes long, the first season of “Catastrophe” kicks off with a week’s worth of spontaneous, toe-curling sexual encounters between Sharon, an Irish schoolteacher living in London, and Rob, an American whose job in advertising has taken him there on business. The pair meet at a packed club in Soho, connecting immediately over Rob’s self-deprecating admission that he’s a recovering alcoholic who quit drinking after he crapped in his pants at his sister’s wedding a few years back. (Though the show’s main characters share their creators’ first names and other biographical details, they’re strictly fiction. Real-life Delaney has written that years of blackout bedwetting weren’t enough to get him on the wagon – it took a drunken car crash in 2002.)
The setup wastes little time getting to the oh-no-she’s-pregnant of it all. But it’s the dynamic of unspoken understanding between the two stars that pulls us in and keeps us invested. In an early scene, the two are barreling lip-locked through Rob’s hotel room. He tosses Sharon onto the bed for further ravishing, but she lands on a plate of cold pizza. “Uh, I’m sorry,” stutters Rob as he peels the offending slice off her back and flips the plate across the room, where it shatters. It’s a moment of mild shock, a critical pause. We see Rob watching Sharon for a reaction – will she, perhaps understandably, rethink this whole encounter? Sharon looks toward the wall and back at Rob. “That was exciting,” she breathes in her light Irish lilt. And it’s on.
Great sex repeated in a constellation of locales is what brings Rob and Sharon together, but something more quickly takes root. In a heart-fluttering moment of goodbye before Rob flies back to Boston, he tells Sharon he’ll remember her “as an extraordinarily good-smelling woman, with a magical ass. And you’re smart, so you could even get away with being less attractive, and you’d still be fairly attractive.” She, in turn, will remember him “as a sturdy love-maker, with a massive chin, who was really kind to waiters and taxi drivers, which suggests you might actually be a good person.”
This natural tenderness toward each other becomes a lifeline once Sharon realizes she’s pregnant and Rob returns to London to help her figure it out. The show probes the muddle of expectations, hopes and cynical fears that inevitably arise between two relative strangers caught up in a relentlessly intimate situation. Neither owns a road map for the right course of action, but they approach the situation like two decent people willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
“Catastrophe” doesn’t gloss over painful subjects – Sharon’s pregnancy turns out to be viciously complicated, a fact she confronts with expressions of humor, fury, self-pity and candor (sometimes simultaneously). At times, she tries to let him off the hook. “You don’t need to be a part of this life, you know,” she says. “I’m not expecting anything. Except money.”
“So I just write a check every month and leave it at that?” Nice guy Rob is incensed. “Fuck that. I didn’t know my father, and it sucked. This kid gets a dad.”
A disgusted groan comes from Sharon. “Oh, God. You don’t have to be so American about it.” But she’s smiling; their bond feels more and more real.
The leads’ relationship is cemented by a supporting cast of friends and family who are all amusingly awful in one way or another. Rob’s harpy of a mother, played to a “T” by Carrie Fisher, works overtime from afar to free her son from the clutches of what she calls “just a foreign baby.” The couple’s closest friends, more by default than any real affinity, are oversexed, wrathful homeopath Fran (Ashley Jensen) and her embittered, chain-smoking husband Chris (Mark Bonnar). Dave (Daniel Lapaine), the closest thing Rob has to a London friend, is a dude-bro of the grossest, most self-loathing variety. The supporting characters are played for laughs and groans, but the writing on “Catastrophe” is too smart to leave them caricatured. Dude-bro Dave starts out as the living embodiment of a waste of breath, but even his humanity begins to show as he pressures Rob to come along and get a prostate massage from a prostitute, and in short order, he also confesses his dad just died.
Season 1 of “Catastrophe” is available to Amazon Prime subscribers, but even nonsubscribers can catch the first episode for free. The worst thing about the show is how little of it there is. The emotional final episode ends on a cliffhanger, but fortunately for us, a second season is already in the works.
Lisa Barrow is a member of the Duke City Writers collective, tweets with exceeding irregularity @OhLisaBarrow and most recently served as arts and lit editor and web editor at the Weekly Alibi.