Coming in at six 24-minute episodes a season, Catastrophe is some of the most efficient televisual storytelling out there. Such accelerated storytelling could be seen as obstacles to what are the central themes of Catastrophe: falling in love, the incremental rhythms of cohabitation and marriage, raising children, growing old. In the first season, released on Amazon Prime last June, we go from meet-cute to marriage with impressive rapidity and believability. Yet the show manages to portray, with an alarming degree of realism and recognition, the experience of everyday domestic living, despite its swift seasons. The second season—which comes out tomorrow, on Amazon again—is no less plot-packed, though it is certainly darker than the more rom-com structured first season. The show’s condensation of narrative, however, continues to generate some of the most surprisingly moving moments on TV—perhaps unexpectedly, given that season two of Catastrophe is still very much a comedy. It’s an instance where we find experimental narrative television outside the genre of long, prestige TV serials.
While romance and marriage plots are hardly innovative topics when it comes to TV, Catastrophe (ever true to its name) has managed to flip both on their heads. In season one, Sharon and Rob (played by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who also co-write the series) are strangers who meet at a bar. Yet, before a literal minute has passed in the pilot, they’re tumbling into Rob’s hotel room to have, as Sharon puts it, “casual sex with a sober person.” Rob is recovering alcoholic—a fact that he shares with Sharon in an oddly intimate opening line: “I quit a few years ago after I shit my pants at my sister’s wedding.” Sharon laughs, and sparks fly. The show doesn’t make it that easy for the two, however. Rob is an American advertising executive on a business trip in London, where Sharon lives and works as a schoolteacher. Still, their one-nighter quickly turns into a hot weeklong fling before Rob flies back to Boston, where, while on a date with another woman a month later, he gets a call from “Sharon London Sex” informing him that she’s pregnant. In the actual time of the show, however, we’re just five minutes in.
The rest of season one is similarly a whirlwind: Rob flies back to London, he proposes, they get married. Simple and formulaic and morally conscientious enough. Except, as the show telegraphs from the very start, nothing in life is quite any of these things. For starters, Sharon and Rob are both in their forties, which leads to real concerns on Sharon’s part about “geriatric pregnancy” that the first season deftly and even humorously explores. They’re both thoroughly comfortable in their respective lives, which also just happen to occur several time zones apart. The first season concludes with a massive fight in a hotel room on the night of their wedding that ends with a slammed door, which (surprise!) is almost immediately reopened as Sharon’s water suddenly breaks. Given the speed with which Rob and Sharon’s worlds get overturned and entwined, maybe six rapid-fire episodes per season isn’t all that inappropriate?
The chemistry between Rob and Sharon is undeniably explosive, but desire alone can’t sustain a relationship, no less a marriage. What is perhaps the most original aspect of Catastrophe is how Rob and Sharon are willing to get dirty not only in sex, but in arguments as well. The romantic couple on this show fights. They disagree and dispute like any couple, but especially, like any couple planning to raise a child together after having known each other for a week. But unlike many of the world-shattering disputes on arguably more repressive dramas about marriage, the disagreements on Catastrophe can be (and often are) dissipated with a dumb retort, a bad joke, a crinkling of the nose which quickly turns into a laugh. Don’t even get me started on the make-up sex. The representation of fights as not just contingent and often arbitrary, but as an ongoing process of simply being with another person, hasn’t been so well portrayed since Gilmore Girls.
Critics have already remarked on the jarring, refreshing, and, perhaps most importantly, absurdly funny honesty with which season one approaches its subjects. Except this time, our protagonists are a little older, more tired, and though now familiar with one another’s quirks and specificities, no less capable of becoming irritated by them. What is more, because most of the romantic comedy aspects of Rob and Sharon’s story are in the past, what we get in season two is both less cute and, well, more about marriage.
At the start of season two, Rob and Sharon are three years into their marriage, still living in London, and with baby number two on its way. (I won’t give away how we learn about the baby, though I will say: Efficient. Storytelling.)
It’s a challenge to keep marriage going—at least in terms of narrative—because of how challenging it is to keep representations of marriage interesting. As television shows focused specifically around the theme of marriage such as Married and Togetherness suggest, one way of keeping it interesting is by testing all the ways it threatens to fall apart. It might then not be too much of a surprise that this season of Catastrophe also tests the bonds of marriage (and not just Rob and Sharon’s). At the same time, words like “the plot of adultery” or “falling out of love” fail to encapsulate the plot of season two, just as “the marriage plot” or “romantic comedy” fail to describe all that occurs throughout season one. Because between the broad strokes of the genres structuring Catastrophe we also get, in season two, more explorations of female friendship, Sharon’s navigation between motherhood and work, really bad sex, and many uniquely uncomfortable social interactions.
What Horgan and Delaney continue to develop in its new season is a particular sensibility—at once blunt and sentimental, raunchy and romantic, melancholy and comedic. Sometimes these opposing tonal elements clash uncomfortably, and, especially when put against the arguably darker plotline of season two, produce some seriously dizzying television. For instance, in the pilot alone, Sharon gives birth, everyone discovers that her dad has dementia, and the family dog gets run over by a car. “I think I’ll just throw her away?” Rob suggests later that night, after having forgotten about the dead dog in the street all day, “She’s small enough.” And in the broader scope of the episode, that dead dog is small. You as the viewer might have already forgotten about it too.
The most moving and crucial scenes of Catastrophe rarely occur where you might expect, but in the more mundane space of the everyday. When Rob and Sharon take an impromptu trip to Paris in hopes of rekindling their post-pregnancy sex life, they end up spending less time having sex, and more time trying to purchase a breast pump in French. “I don’t think we’re holiday people,” Sharon says to Rob near the end of their trip, “I think we’re good on a Tuesday; when it’s raining.” As if to illustrate exactly this, the next episode shows Sharon and Rob celebrating their three-year anniversary at an upscale restaurant, as both start arguing and then crying. The scene, which takes place over Sharon’s empty wine bottle and Rob’s two desserts, probably should come with its own #tooreal hashtag. Momentous events—weddings, births, and the anniversaries that cumulatively celebrate them—aren’t always happy occasions. More often, they’re laden with expectation and stress. While walking home from this particular dinner, Sharon suggests changing the date of their anniversary to the day they first met—that low-key night of hooking up, when Rob introduced himself with a poop anecdote. When prodded by Sharon, Rob predictably can’t even remember the date.
Along the lines of emphasizing minorness, the second season has also made a move to round out the show’s secondary characters, with one episode focalized almost entirely around their trials. For those who critiqued season one for the sharp discrepancy between the loving representation of Rob and Sharon’s complexities versus the caricaturist sketch of those around them, season two more than delivers. Fran, Chris, and Dave are no longer foils against which our protagonists shine. Instead, they’re at once more flawed and more sympathetic—fragile and complicated and even, at times, offering a word of advice to the show’s leads. We also get more scenes with Carrie Fisher as Rob’s mother delivering what is perhaps my favorite line from the entire season: “Did you know that you can actually message people from inside eBay? I will always answer one of those.”
Season two of Catastrophe could still be called a kind of a romantic comedy insofar as it continues to be both romantic and comedic—though certainly not in the way you might expect. Following its first season, Catastrophe continues to show no signs of settling.