'Catastrophe' Makes Male Vulnerability Funny
In its third season, the Amazon sitcom has hilariously—and warmly—humanized its father figure.
Mark Johnson/Amazon Prime Video
The image of a crying man is a misandrist's dream. On Amazon's Catastrophe, however, it's an opportunity for empathetic laughs, and it might elicit some tears from the audience as well.
Catastrophe is an effervescent half-hour sitcom from the charming, twisted minds of comedians Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, possessing a light sprinkling of Hieronymus Bosch. Within the first five minutes of the pilot, attractive forty-somethings Sharon and Rob have raucously shagged four times, including in a public restroom and a hotel stairwell. (This is after he confesses to her, a beautiful stranger at the bar, that he quit drinking after he "shit his pants" at his sister's wedding.) He's a dimpled and witty Bostonite on a business trip to London; she's an acerbic, brutally honest Irish-born schoolteacher. Their affair comes with an expiration date—that is, until Sharon discovers she's pregnant. Eventually, Rob relocates to the U.K. and they get to know each other while also preparing for the birth of their child.
Catastophe's high-concept logline reads like a forgotten 90s romantic comedy—"What happens when unintended conception forces two strangers to fall in love?"—but the series has evolved into something much more compelling than its conceit. Fluidly caustic and sweet, Catastrophe is also delightfully dirty, searing with scatological candidness and feverish sexuality. (At one point this season, Sharon hilariously refers to the idea of Rob's spermless semen as "dead glop.")
Yet beyond the gonzo sex scenes and gross-out gags—all of which are plentiful and wonderful—Catastrophe revels in nuanced realism, exploring everything from financial peril to the terrors of aging. While season one saw Rob and Sharon navigate both a new relationship and an unexpected, late-in-life pregnancy, season two settled them into daily domesticity, battling the pitfalls of post-partum life. Season three, however, is something different, and perhaps richer, altogether: a treatise on how gendered pressures fail families. For the first time in its brilliant run, we see the affable but flawed Rob thrust into the emotional spotlight. Here, Catastrophe does what few other sitcoms take the time to do: fully humanize its father figure.
The third season finds Rob in a terribly ironic position: after lying about an encounter with another man during a brief separation, Sharon paddles desperately to keep their relationship—and her favor with him—afloat. What Sharon doesn't know is that recovering alcoholic Rob has relapsed from the near-cratering of their marriage, as well as his career following a (mostly) false sexual harassment accusation. While Sharon begs for her husband's forgiveness, Rob harbors a secret that has the power to blow up their family right underneath their feet.
Fed up with soul-crushing life in Big Pharma, humiliated by his vindictive coworker, and in denial about falling off the wagon, Rob decides to go back on the job market when Sharon returns to teaching. But he's sweaty—both physically and mentally—flailing disastrously at every turn: flustered at recruiter meetings, drunk on job interviews. He binges his pain and complains incessantly about his weight gain—a tiresome trope for a female character that is actually refreshing to see coming from a male one. Perpetually stressed and writhing in insecurity, he snaps at a mom during school pick-up, only to apologize the next day: "Look at me: I'm a mess. I can't provide for my family. I have diarrhea every day. I have secrets inside of me..."
It's hard to watch such a congenial charmer sink into desperation, especially a character imbued with Delaney's natural boyish sanguinity. In one scene, Rob leaves the gym and grabs too many snack samples, claiming they're for his kids. His membership has run out, and when he leaves, he promises the attendant he just has to run to his car to grab his credit card. In the next scene, we see him on the city bus, having gorged on the samples and stuffing the paper cups into the seat cushions. It's a brutal and also drolly relatable sequence—who hasn't eaten their feelings or lied out of shame? For fatherless Rob, it's clear he's the product of a culture that tells men they need to provide for their families no matter the emotional cost. As his recruiter tells him, "Don't tell them you're a stay-at-home dad. Here, men get a real job."
Male vulnerability is a raw nerve that has backfired on a number of other programs. We rarely gets to see TV dads crumble sympathetically. Cable is full of bad sad dads—just look at the Asshole Triumvirate of Tony Soprano/Don Draper/Walter White. Even my beloved network show This Is Us might as well be called Daddy Issues: The TV Show. Every now and then a sitcom dad might surprise us— How I Met Your Mother attempted to open up the mushy hole in its protagonist's chest (though we never actually saw him parent).
There are times in Catastrophe that Rob and Sharon flash elements of sitcom tropes, playing off elements of the Nagwife or the Lumbering Oaf. But here, Rob's fragility isn't played for melodramatic pathos, or to excuse criminal behavior, or to string along an audience for nine seasons. His slow autophagy is both comically relatable and also devastatingly tragic: we watch as his buoyant American confidence is slowly weathered down to a nub, until the season finale's heartbreaking, breathless cliffhanger.
Unglamorous motherhood is something great shows like Jane the Virgin, Big Little Lies, and Girls have put great effort into uncovering. But in choosing to highlight Rob's descent into what my bitchy seventh-grade self coined "pathesperation," Catastrophe highlights an important theme for 2017: male economic fragility, reality for many families men lose their identities when women become the breadwinners. As Rob tells his friend, "There's this doctor in Aleppo and he puts people together after they get blown up. And he just stays there and sticks it out. And I know that's not my situation but my family is my Syria and I have to work at a terrible job so they can eat and live in a house and that's just how it is."
Yes, Rob is wading in a flowing river of self-pity, but witnessing him attempt to squeeze blood from a stone is vital when so many real-life men silently endure his pain.
Follow Robyn Bahr on Twitter.