Is Catastrophe Really the Show We Need Right Now?

Who is We and Why Do We Need It?

Lately, I’ve been seeing articles, in the kinds of places that publish articles, that Catastrophe is the show we need right now. But who, I find myself wondering, is “we”? And what is it about Catastrophe, out of all the 60 million shows on TV, that we actually “need”?

I’ve watched all four seasons of this British sitcom on Amazon Prime. While I can’t fault it for its excellent fart jokes and occasionally heart-wrenching emotional realism, this isn’t exactly a show with universal appeal. It’s often snobby and more than occasionally mean. It has a thin, subtle story, and lacks memorable set pieces. The sex is uncomfortable and the butts hairy. So, to quote Tonto by way of Mad Magazine, “what do you mean, ‘we’?” 

Catastrophe has an unusual backstory, even by TV standards. Hilarious Twitter comedian Rob Delaney, mostly ignored by Hollywood, found himself married to a British woman and living in London. Professionally, he paired up with Sharon Horgan, more talented and better-looking than him. They created a pilot with a classic sitcom premise. An American man, in London for business, meets a British woman at a bar. They spend a week fucking wildly and he knocks her up.

From there, the show spins deliciously sideways, and not just because of an amazing supporting turn by Carrie Fisher, in her final role, as Delaney’s mother. Delaney’s character, also named Rob, certainly has his problems, alcoholism most of all. But he proves willing to commit, physically, financially, and emotionally. Horgan’s “Sharon,” on the other hand, is a neurotic emotional midget, ambivalent about motherhood and marriage, who steadfastly and selfishly refuses to improve herself. At the end of the first season, she goes into labor, and the audience prepares for season two, where this mismatched but loving pair brings up baby.

But in a strange and somewhat fatal move, Horgan and Delaney decide to fast-forward the narrative. When Catastrophe resumes in season two, our protagonists have two children, live in an unfancy but still well-located London townhouse, and Delaney is working as a junior executive at a sleazy Big Pharma firm. Suddenly, our heroes feel a little less relatable. They’re more like unwilling avatars of international privilege.

Lack of class awareness, like with a lot of TV, is Catastrophe’s unforgivable blindspot. It’s strange, too, given that Delaney is an unrepentant Bernie Bro who, after he tragically lost his young son to illness last year, took to Twitter to praise the National Health Service to the skies. His left-wing family-man politics, and his less-than-predictable responses to things, definitely distinguish him and his character on Catastrophe from the comedy crowd.

So it’s all the more frustrating that the show refuses to acknowledge its essential yuppiness. Delaney and Horgan don’t live fancy lives, but they have a nanny, travel frequently, and never really seem to worry about money. The show’s supporting cast is wealthier still. No one ever seems to work. They just bop about London on motorcycles and drink Chardonnay.

Season Four digs deeper into the emotional realism, but drifts further away from financial worry. Rob struggles with his alcoholism, and Sharon is kind of a dick about the whole thing. They don’t have much sex. At one point, Rob says, “I still feel a kind of fondness when I look at you.”  And that’s all she wants. The kids barely register.  Our protagonists are middle-aged, awash in grief and addiction, barely functioning, and rich enough for constant low-level dysfunction. They can’t think about the future.

So who are these people? At one point, during a family trip to the States, Sharon gazes out over the shores of Cape Cod and only semi-ironically refers to the U.S. as a “white nationalist ethno-state run by a fake theocratic dictator.” We can safely assume that they’re not Brexiters; Sharon is Irish. So that’s why the media extols this show to the skies: not because it’s good, and often hilarious. When the elite meet to stream, their shows don’t just have to be entertaining, they have to be a mirror. They love Catastrophe because it’s about them. 

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney have problems in Catastrophe.

In a world that’s either changing or not, Catastrophe perfectly reflects the concerns and neuroses of the gaslit class. They just want to raise their kids and eat their sushi and go on globally they way things were before, but there’s also a vague and nagging sense that they’re being consumed by a revolution. Catastrophe’s bitter irony, which also reflects reality, is that they’re fine. They’re free people in a free world, free to do basically whatever they want. Delaney and Horgan seem to realize this, but they respond with a shrug, as though the best of times, their glorious prime, is not enough. Their situation hardly merits the term “catastrophe.” It’s barely a fender-bender.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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