[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from Season 3 of “Catastrophe.”]
Alcoholics on television aren’t anything new, but in “Catastrophe’s” third season, the Amazon comedy gave a new face to the familiar stereotype.
That’s because “Catastrophe’s” depiction of alcohol comes from a deeply personal place. The show’s lead male character, Rob Norris, is inspired by co-creator, writer and star Rob Delaney and his own struggles: In 2002, Delaney blacked out while driving, crashed into a building, and sustained serious but not life-threatening injuries. He’s been sober ever since.
Initially, Delaney didn’t want his character to struggle with alcohol one way or another, but series co-creator, writer and co-star Sharon Horgan convinced him otherwise. “I had already talked about drinking enough in other creative endeavors before this that I was like, ‘[The character] doesn’t need to be sober,’” Delaney told IndieWire. “Sharon was like, ‘But you know, it could add color to it. So why not?’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay, fine.’ And thank God we had that in our back pocket, because it’s proven to be pretty fertile territory.”
Horgan said that she thought it was important to address alcoholism “because of Rob himself, but also I’ve got friends who’ve gone through that…there’s something very fulfilling about telling stories that you know whatever percentage of the people are watching are dealing with or have had happen to them, or know someone that it’s happened to… with all the silliness that’s in there, we feel like we’ve got a little bit of a responsibility now because people responded to those bigger issues and topics in the first series.”
Alcoholics on TV tend to fall into two categories: functioning alcoholics like “Mad Men’s” Don Draper (Jon Hamm), whose wardrobe isn’t complete unless accessorized with a cocktail, or acknowledged alcoholics who clearly should never touch the stuff, such as drunken dad Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) on “Shameless.” Rob Norris falls somewhere in between.
From the show’s first episode, Rob was happily sober and drinking cola in the bar where he meets his one-week stand and now wife Sharon (Sharon Horgan). For two whole seasons, the character was fine. In last season’s finale, however, Rob fell off the wagon, and in all of Season 3, he struggles with the return of alcohol into his life.
For the most part, he seemed to succeed. Despite sneaking a drink at lunch or while doing the laundry, Rob still appeared to be his normal self: funny, sweet and a dedicated dad and husband. He even went to the gym. But according to Delaney, most of Rob’s actions, even working out, can be seen as the compensatory behaviors of an addict.
Delaney said, “Rob is definitely going through some internal crisis in the third season, so I think the working out is him trying to exert a little control on his life. He definitely feels things slipping out of control.”
That attempt at control is also funneled into strategies to avoid Sharon discovering that he has backslid. “Someone with a drinking problem does try to schedule when they’re going to do things and know when they might have a window. If he has one drink at lunch, and then spends some time and eats some cheese and onion potato chips, then [she won’t know]. The only time he gets really drunk is when she’s out of the country. So he’s trying to do some controlled drinking, really. The character is trying to not be under the influence when he’s near her.”
Rob doesn’t stop drinking, however, which means he does not in fact have control. “Yeah, he’s definitely burying it, but we like the idea of it slowly catching up with him,” said Horgan. “In the first job interview, and the guy smelling it off him, we wanted those feelings to make people panic a bit, and when [Rob’s friend] Chris notices. We wanted it to feel like the walls were closing in a bit. He could lie to himself in private but he’s not going to be able to lie to all of these other people as well. He thought he had it under control, and he’d deal with it in his own time but things just spiraled out of control.”
It had seems like Rob has a wake-up call after a heart-to-heart conversation with his mother Mia (in a posthumous appearance by the late Carrie Fisher), who reveals that her jaw clicks because her husband, his father, was a drunk who had hit her once. And then she threatened to leave him if he ever hit his own wife.
Unfortunately, in the final moments of the season finale, Rob is driving to pick Sharon up when his car gets T-boned by a driver who ran a red light. Bleeding from a head wound, he confesses to Sharon, “[The police are] going to give me a breathalyzer. I’m not going to pass it. I’m sorry.”
That cliffhanger ends the season, creating a storytelling challenge for next season.
“At the moment, we are thinking of story in and around our characters and the more secondary characters, but what we haven’t yet figured out is how we’re going to to deal with the big old climax that we ended on,” Horgan said. “We want to make sure that we don’t chicken out. We want to get it right. That kind of thing takes a lot of talking before you even sit down and start writing, it takes a lot of conversation. This thing where we feel like we need it to feel as real and true as possible. Anything that stinks of too much of sitcom we get scared of, so we wait until the real answers come along and hopefully make them funny.”
“Catastrophe” is currently available to stream on Amazon and will air in repeats on Lifetime beginning June 9.