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The Groundbreaking Gyno-Humor of Amazon’s Realistic Rom Com ‘Catastrophe’

The Groundbreaking Gyno-Humor of Amazon's Realistic Rom Com 'Catastrophe'

Catastrophe,” the Amazon sitcom by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney about a bi-continental couple dealing with an accidental pregnancy resulting from a casual hookup, has been called “the best new show on TV” and “the rom-com of the year.”

It’s also, as far as I can recall, the only comedy that’s name-checked “cervical dysplasia” as a fairly major plot point.

The show’s ability to work in realistic medical and health issues surrounding pregnancy is one of its most unique, if less lauded, assets. The only precedent I could think of was the “Girls” episode that dealt with Hannah’s coming to terms with having HPV — except “Catastrophe” also features a male romantic lead (Delaney) capable of talking about this stuff without going into the usual disgusted/terrified schtick.

Delaney has spoken at length about his desire to get away from that sort of fare in this show, which juxtaposes him with another male character, Chris (played hilariously wryly by Mark Bonnar), who warns Rob to stay far away from the delivery room. “What we wanted to do was show a guy talking about birth who really didn’t give a toss about women and what they experience,” Delaney has said, “so we wanted to take the most wonderful thing that could ever possibly happen and have a man describe it in terms that made him look like a monster.”

I’m well-versed in Delaney, less so with Horgan (though I’m now eager to make my way through all of her 2006 show “Pulling“). But the collaboration between these two comics is a prime example of the way in which feminist writers and performers — of both genders — are changing the language of the romantic comedy for the better, and smarter, AND funnier.

“You’re pregnant and I’m not,” Delaney’s character points out to Horgan’s early on. True to this ethos, his character is reliably deferential to what Horgan’s is going through, physically. At the same time, he stands his ground as a necessary part of raising their child, even when Sharon defensively hits him with the notion that he doesn’t have to stick around for it. (“It’s not the 1930s,” she says, echoing a friend’s advice). Rob thinks otherwise, and says so with his usual candor: “What about when you have to take a shit? Or get a haircut?”

More seriously, they also deal in an articulate, human, believable way with genuinely tough subjects, like the looming specter of chromosomal abnormality in Sharon’s pregnancy (as she’s over 40). This is another term you’re not likely to hear tossed around in a rom-com. It’s about the least funny topic you can think of, which makes its successful inclusion here such a marvel. The show may be a comedy, but this particular episode closes on a scene of real poignancy and pain as Horgan shares a fleeting moment with a little girl with Down syndrome and her mother.  

Through it all, Rob and Sharon — despite only having known each other for a short time — forge a real friendship within their insta-relationship, talking with sometimes terrifically awkward honesty about how they’re going to handle issues of various sizes and seriousness.

The show also neatly subverts the paces we’re used to seeing in comedies about pregnancy. In one of the most surprising (and possibly controversial) bits, Rob tells the nicotine-jonesing Sharon to “just have a cigarette if you want one,” rather than lecturing her on the dangers of smoking while pregnant or having her shamed by an onlooker. It’s not what the medical establishment might sign off on, but I bet it’s a more realistic depiction of someone in early pregnancy trying to quit and possibly not succeeding right away.

In another refreshing move away from the typical rom-sitcom, the show never stoops to trumped-up misunderstandings or withheld information between its characters to drum up drama. Five minutes into the first episode, Sharon’s on the phone to Rob, telling him she’s pregnant. Later, when she goes to the OB-GYN alone to discuss having an amniocentesis, she tells Rob about having done it later that day (rather than, say, brooding about it alone for weeks while he tries to guess what’s wrong).

It’s a testament to the writing talents of both Delaney and Horgan that potentially grim moments — such as when Sharon’s informed she has “pre-cancer” — work so well alongside, and within, the profane, witty banter that dominates the show. Of course, they’re not working alone. Along with Bonnar, they’ve got talents like Ashley Jensen (“Extras”) as Sharon’s uptight childhood friend, Daniel Lapaine as Rob’s fratty friend Dave and, delightfully, Carrie Fisher as Rob’s passive-aggressive mom.

As a bonus, “Catastrophe” also features Tobias Menzies (“Outlander”) as Horgan’s OB-GYN, a hand-sanitizer-obsessed doc who casually delivers lines like “The birth process really does take a scrubbing brush to the cervix.”

Delaney and Horgan are currently shooting the show’s second season, in London like the first, which will reportedly move forward in time. Given that both are real-life parents, I expect that may prove even more of a dramedy gold mine than the first season.

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