It may only be a month old but thus far 2015 has been something of a duff year for British comedy. While the US has already scored another hit series with HBO’s delightfully understated Togetherness, on this side of the pond all we’ve mustered is an outdated, hackneyed attempt at a prison-set sitcom and Up The Women, a soporifically gentle comedy about the suffragette movement.
How grateful we should be, then, to Channel 4 for shoving the fantastic Catastrophe (Mondays, 10pm) in front of our malnourished synapses.
Written by Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, this subtle and subversive comedy has all the verve and filthy humour of the latter’s previous hit show, the superb Pulling (co-written with Denis Kelly), but also feels more grown-up with its tender observations about real relationships and the high-stakes implications of the story.
In it, Horgan plays a middle-aged Irish teacher living in London who embarks on a week-long bonk-a-thon with Delaney’s tall American stranger safe in the knowledge that it will end when he returns to the US. Skip ahead a few weeks, however, and Sharon is interrupting Rob’s date with the news that she has fallen pregnant, a surprising mishap that forces him to return to Blighty.
This premise might have the bare bones of a pretty good romcom, and there is an undoubtable undercurrent of love cutting through the humour, but Catastrophe most often aims to swaggeringly subvert the genre with its sharp, biting wit.
Witness, for example, the scene in episode one where the parting lovers say their final goodbyes. Typically the source of much gushing and blubbering about how much they long for each other, in Horgan and Delaney’s hands it becomes an uncomfortably honest joke. She was smart and smelled nice, he said; she noticed that he was kind to the waiters and “might actually be a good person”.
There are no saccharine notions of love conquering all here, just a real living, breathing, shagging, dysfunctioning couple with relatable insecurities. They like to have sex, but don’t always enjoy each other’s company, they bicker about storage space and they secretly worry they may not be right for one another. But what makes them such a disarmingly rootable couple is the realisation that there is genuine love between them – they’re not simply giving it a go because there’s a baby on the way.
It of course helps that both Rob and Sharon are believable characters in their own rights, superbly played by Horgan and Delaney. She is a lonely teacher petrified at the prospect of facing motherhood – and quite possibly cancer – on her own. He is a recovering alcoholic who is determined not to end up like his absentee-father, so much so that he uproots his entire life to join Sharon in London.
And it’s because these characters are so tenderly written and human that the humour strikes such a chord. Horgan once joked that it wouldn’t matter if the cast of Lena Dunham’s Girls were all hit by a bus because they don’t have any children. She was joking, but she also had a point. I don’t really care about the lives of Hanna and her over-privileged girlfriends (though I do enjoy the show itself), whereas with Catastrophe I am deeply invested in Rob and Sharon’s lives – and the comedy is all the richer for it.
From panicked pillow talk about whether Rob would kill his wife-to-be to collect the life insurance to a clumsy marriage proposal in a puddle of urine, the humour is dark, quirky, unashamedly dirty, and has an uncomfortable ring of truth to every gag that is genuinely funny – a combination that’s all too rare in new comedies.
That’s why the show is such entertaining, fulfilling, and emotional viewing, because it is so unusual to experience a comedy that adroitly balances real belly-laughs with heartfelt, human characters. It already looks unmatchable as the best comedy of 2015 and has just been renewed for a second series after just two episodes. Yet more evidence – as if any were needed – that Catastrophe has been anything but.
Click here to catch-up with Catastrophe on 4oD