Channel 4’s Catastrophe returns to our screens tonight for a fourth season, bringing with it a wave of insults, laughs and romance in the unlikeliest of places.
Written by and starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, the series follows Rob and Sharon, an American guy and a British woman, who get together after she falls pregnant during a brief fling while he was in the UK on business. Since then, it’s been up and down for the couple, often at the same time – a balance maintained by the show’s juggling of sweet sincerity with scathing, foul-mouthed dialogue.
With all three previous seasons on All 4 and Amazon Prime Video, we break down why you need Catastrophe in your life:
The comedy set its raunchy tone right from the off, as Rob and Sharon meet one night in London. A six-night stand later, he discovers she’s pregnant – and promptly flies back over from America to do the honourable thing. Which mostly involves having more sex. Catastrophe doesn’t shy away from the naughty side of relationships, nor any other side, for that matter: the conversations between our couple manage to be saucy, silly and serious all at the same time.
Part of Catastrophe’s strength is that the pair wrote the show for themselves, playing to their own strengths and allowing their natural chemistry to fizz and pop. It more than pays off: there’s a constant sense that these aren’t two actors delivering a series of one-liners, but two flawed, fully-rounded people whom we happen to be watching. They’re not trying to make an audience guffaw; they’re trying to make each other do it. They succeed, frequently, and those giggles feels as much a part of their courting process as their frequent shagging.
In the face of American TV shows such as This Is Us, Catastrophe is not just enjoyably adult but refreshingly cynical. Things go wrong, constantly, and people never say the right thing and certainly not at the right time. At no point do the couple say “I love you”. They do, however, say things like “pre-cancer”, “you’re the second biggest thing in this flat after the bed” and “if one of us brings up pregnancy or visas, the other one can punch them in the face across the table”. The only “l” word here is laughter.
That determination to skip the soppy, sanitised version of love you usually see on screen means that the programme oddly ends up incredibly moving, as it finds the sweet truth of commitment to your chosen life partner through thick and thin. The title is no coincidence: it reminds us every episode that, to some degree, everything in real life is a catastrophe. The fun lies in getting through it.
With 30-minute episodes in which to fit every bit of awkward pain, cute affection and side-splitting amusement possible, Catastrophe barrels along at one heck of a pace. The storyline matches it: our couple’s initial meeting is over in 30 seconds, as they rush into the bedroom, while the rest of their first dates skip past in a blur of a montage. Suddenly, they’re into the serious relationship stuff – moving in together, relocating to a new country, meeting the parents, getting engaged – but like us, they still don’t really know each other. “Are you mental?” Sharon wonders. “Marry me and find out,” comes the smart aleck reply. Season 2 keeps up the momentum, jumping from Sharon’s waters breaking to the arrival of a new baby – their second one, two years later.
Delaney’s wise-cracking grin and almost-chiselled straight face are a natural contrast to Horgan’s worried soon-to-be-mum, who can fire put-downs at a pace that smacks you right in the funny bone. But it’s not just Rob and Sharon who are sharply hysterical: the show has a superb supporting cast, from the scene-stealing Mark Bonnar as Chris, whose deadpan melancholy fits right in with the life problems on display, to Ashley Jensen’s Fran, who splits with Chris to find unhappiness with other people. And, best of all, is Carrie Fisher as Rob’s bossy mother, Mia, who turns a stereotype into a surprising source of emotion and humour. Season 3, which features some of her last screen work, ends with a tribute to the late, great actress.
If all of this sounds like a chirpy pick-me-up, you’d be right – but it’s also relentlessly, brilliantly cruel in a way that never fails to shock. If Season 1’s raunchy banter emphasised our lead duo’s charm and attraction, the subsequent runs have highlighted their ingenuity for insults. “You felt threatened?” exclaims Rob within the opening minutes of Season 2. “What are you, a blogger?” “You’re going out,” Sharon retorts, moments later. “What are you, a teenager?” Their chemistry feels even more natural here, as the couple manage to make the cruelty hurt as much as the cuteness endears. The couple’s writing is sharp, but their tongues are even more so: their connection is simultaneously relaxed and abrasive.
That dark streak is deceptively bold for a mainstream comedy, tackling topics as bleak as infidelity, depression, debt, death and overdoses. But crucially, these things are all as funny as they are recognisable: when a decisive row between Rob and Sharon takes place in front of one of her friends, even she can’t help but titter at the absurd dialogue they invent. “Is your email address still impatient shithead at me dot jerk?” Rob yells, his face as laughably ridiculous as it is believably annoyed. Season 3, meanwhile, goes even darker, as it begins to explore Rob’s relapse into alcoholism, something that Season 4 will pick up in even greater detail.
How do you follow up the first season of a romantic sitcom that managed to juggle being funny, rude, sweet and brazenly honest all at the same time? Keep going. And judging by remarkably consistent Season 2 and Season 3, Catastrophe isn’t about to drop the ball anytime soon.
Season 4 of Catastrophe premieres 10pm on Channel 4 on Tuesday 8th January. Season 1 to 3 of Catastrophe are available for free on All 4. It is also available on Amazon Prime Video, a part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.