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Humor Saves the Day (and the Marriage): ‘Catastrophe’ Returns

Humor Saves the Day (and the Marriage): 'Catastrophe' Returns

The wait is over: Season 2 of Amazon’s blissfully filthy-mouthed comedy “Catastrophe” premieres on Amazon Prime next Friday, and once again you will find yourself wishing it had three times as many episodes (like the first season, this one consists of six).

Comics Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney reprise their roles as Sharon and Rob, the respectively Irish and American couple who got pregnant during a tryst and decided to make a go of it. They’re still in London as the new season begins, though — and this is a mild spoiler, but not if you’ve seen the trailer — the series jumps forward to the very end of her second pregnancy, while their first son is now a toddler.

The show is necessarily more complicated, and palpably darker, this time around. Its creators are both parents themselves, and this season is a wide-ranging look at the chaos that is raising small children and trying to hang onto your sanity and identity — though, as Delaney explained in an interview, the show’s name “isn’t about bad things happening. It’s a directly lifted allusion to Zorba the Greek, the book and the film, where Zorba is asked: do you have a wife? And he says: ‘I have the wife, I have the kids, I have the full catastrophe.’ That’s what it is.”

Still, bad things do happen — several of them right away, as the couple hosts friends and family to meet the new baby. Her name, Muireann — an Irish name chosen by Sharon — immediately becomes a running joke, as nobody can figure out how to pronounce it. Meanwhile, Sharon’s father (Gary Lilburn) is demonstrating signs of dementia and Rob’s terrible mother (a returning Carrie Fisher, hurray!) has long overstayed her welcome with them. 

In other words, the kind of stuff that is always happening in real life. And Delaney and Horgan find endless biting humor in embracing every bit of it. In this, I think the second season, maybe even more than the first, is a pitch-perfect response to the current, especially American obsession with masquerading perfection and unassailable happiness; I’m thinking particularly of Facebook here, but more generally the notion that parents — and everyone else, but it’s really noticeable with parents — feel compelled to act as if they’ve constantly got everything under control and life is great.

These are the people the fictional Sharon and Rob (and, I’d wager, the real ones too) find terribly dull. The ones who look at you with puzzlement when you crack a joke, as the “mombies” do to Sharon when she tries to assimilate into their pack.

Furthermore — and perhaps this goes without saying — there is nary a trace of smug “you haven’t really lived until you become a parent” sanctimony. Sharon and Rob are obviously into having kids, even with all the life-altering changes they bring, but they are still, fundamentally, the same people they were beforehand. Only with more bodily fluids on them.

Speaking of which, sex remains a prominent topic in the series, though now it’s mostly being talked about instead of actually occurring (as per seemingly every parent’s lament). The show manages to stay away from the idea that it’s women who totally shut down sex after children arrive. Even though it’s Rob who does a lot of the wheedling for regular sex, the episodes are quick to point out that Sharon’s body has been through hell (in one episode, she forgets her breast pump, turning a romantic weekend in Paris into a painful search for relief) and not that she’s become some sort of asexual being.

Secondary characters are as delightfully prickly as ever; Sharon’s passive-aggressive brother Fergal (Jonathan Forbes) is having money problems he comes to Rob for help with, while their friends Chris (Mark Bonnar) and Fran (Ashley Jensen) are on the rocks. Bonnar’s deadpan one-line takes remain highlights of every episode, and Jensen gets an interesting, bittersweet plotline of her own that I won’t spoil. Rob’s awful friend Dave (Daniel Lapaine) is now sober, but no less of a bro.

Horgan has said she thinks it’s Delaney who’s the sweeter of the two of them. Their combined sensibilities are what make this show so singularly brilliant, but I do like that Rob continues to be a beacon of incredulous feminism — that is to say, his character’s inherent respect for women is often delivered in a “well, fucking obviously” tone of voice. In a plot involving his character’s being tempted by adultery, his response to it combines integrity and imperfection — a blend that defines both of these flawed, hilarious people.

Even so, though, Sharon gets a fair amount of the show’s best material as her character grapples with the dichotomy between the idea of getting “what I always wanted, apparently” — as she says of her life now in a house with two kids and a dog — and the reality of it. Still, you never get the sense that even life’s biggest hurdles are going to get the better of this couple, and the glue that keeps them together is shared humor, not the pretense of perfection. Are you listening, Facebook couples?

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