In its stunning third season, 'Catastrophe' comes further out of its darkly funny shell
It’s remarkable how quickly Amazon’s “Catastrophe” became one of the best new comedies of the 2010s. Usually, it takes some time for TV comedies to attain critical success before they find their footing. But for some reason, “Catastrophe” — which first aired in 2015 on British network Channel 4 — has consistently delivered on each of its 18 half-hour episodes. Co-creators and stars Rob Delaney (“Life After Beth”) and Sharon Horgan (“Divorce”) have taken a wild premise — an American man impregnates an Irish woman in London after a one-night stand — and fleshed it out with an honest, unflinching and hysterical look into marriage and family dynamics. Now in its third season, “Catastrophe” unspools the complexity of its protagonists and their unconventional relationship — while remaining hilarious as ever.
Unlike Season Two’s time leap, season three of “Catastrophe” begins right where it left off: The schlubby Rob (Delaney) asks about a receipt for a Plan B pill from his wife Sharon (Horgan), who drunkenly engaged in a quasi-affair with a stranger the night before. Though the infidelity storyline only lingers for that first episode, it leads to an ongoing tension between the two hapless lovebirds that plays out as both entertaining and unnerving.
“We communicate on a wavelength,” Rob tells his eccentric friend Chris (Mark Bonnar, “Undercover”) in the second episode. Even with this casual aside, the pain and lack of communication between Rob and Sharon goes much deeper than Sharon’s one-night fluke. As each episode shows, the couple is still grappling with learning how to be fully-functioning adults, parenthood and marriage being the biggest obstacles to attaining that ideal. Along with confronting a thread of issues like house mortgaging, job hunting and family disconnect, Rob and Sharon must come to terms with their own personal qualms that threaten to destroy their already dysfunctional marriage.
What makes these characters so absorbing and different from any other TV couple is primarily due to the dynamism of Delaney and Horgan’s on and offscreen partnership. They write and act out their roles so well they could easily pass for being a real-life couple, simply replaying their everyday experiences for a TV audience. Delaney infuses both a boyish smugness and gentle vulnerability in Rob, while Horgan paints Sharon into a complex, frustrated wife whose indecision often conflicts with ambitions of her own. Together, they’re comedy gold with a wicked hint of gravitas.
Despite a bit of a lull in the middle of season three — episodes three and four are not the strongest of the bunch — almost every moment feels like an important contribution to “Catastrophe”’s characters and overall narrative.
After being fired for a misunderstanding involving a sexual harassment complaint, Rob’s desire to find work is upended by his arrogance and day drinking. The arrogance aspect makes for some great comedic material, as he zig zags his way through failed interviews with prospective employers. But the drinking aspect lands as much more troubling, and keeping that bad habit a secret from Sharon makes for a disheartening reveal in the season finale.
Meanwhile, Sharon struggles to make sense of her own self-worth, whether it’s being an underappreciated elementary school teacher or an undervalued daughter and sister. But despite her vulgarity and immaturity, Sharon gains some closure with herself when dealing with her dementia-riddled dad Des (Gary Lilburn) and childish brother Fergal (Jonathan Forbes, “Black Mirror”).
These moments of tenderness and melancholy, interspersed with Rob and Sharon’s shenanigans, pull hard at the heartstrings. It’s difficult to incorporate drama in a comedy without making it seem trite, but “Catastrophe” tramples those expectations with grace. Season three’s unexpected cliffhanger is no exception; it’s as jaw-dropping as it is heart-wrenching.
Despite being more serious than the first two seasons, the third season of “Catastrophe” still maintains its raunchy roots. It welcomes the return of Ashley Jensen (“Ugly Betty”) and Eileen Walsh (“Pure Mule”) as Sharon’s kooky friends Fran and Kate, as well as a brief but amazing guest appearance from Domhnall Gleeson (“Brooklyn”) as Rob’s reluctant recruitment consultant. Continuing the role of Rob’s mother from previous seasons, the late Carrie Fisher (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) delivers one of her greatest final performances, imbuing a sinister mix of black humor and pathos in her attempt to curb Rob from destroying his family with his alcoholism.
With these layers lifted, “Catastrophe” gradually sheds from its risqué cocoon and blossoms into something much more substantial and potent. After all, the core of “Catastrophe”’s plot is the constant threat of disaster and how to handle those kinds of situations. As messy as Rob and Sharon are on their own, they find a way to come together even in the darkest of times. Their evolution from restless strangers to a married couple is a journey that challenges the two to acknowledge their imperfections instead of repressing them. But perhaps it’s their instinctual ability to achieve peace within themselves and one another during intense, earth-shattering fights that makes them, and “Catastrophe,” great to watch.