Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Born Again: Catastrophe

Sharon Hogan and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe, originally on UK's Channel 4 and now on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

Since Cheers set the standard for romantic comedy on TV, the most popular template for the form has been the Sam-and-Diane-style “will they are won’t they?” set-up: viewers are introduced to two characters who have good reason to be attracted to each other but also have reasons to resist acting on that attraction, and the audience is expected, like kids in science class observing a pair of caged hamsters, to hang on their every twitch and hot look and wait to see if they’ll get it on. The new series Catastrophe (which aired on Britain’s Channel 4 earlier this year and is now available for streaming at Amazon Prime Instant Video) announces from the start that it is following a different path. Sharon (Sharon Hogan), a forty-one-year-old London schoolteacher and aspiring writer, meets Rob (Rob Delaney), a thirty-eight-year-old visiting American, in a bar; after exchanging a few pleasantries, the two fall into bed together and proceed to have a series of hookups and marathon sex for the rest of the week, until he returns to America.

A few weeks later, Rob is on a date with his next prospective conquest when he gets a phone call from Sharon, who tells him she’s pregnant. Although she promises not to make any demands on him—while allowing that some money would be nice—Rob turns out to be such a standup guy that, without so much as a “Are you sure it’s mine?”, he jumps on the next plane to London and tells Sharon he wants to be there for her. It isn’t long before he tells her that, given the circumstances and the fact that they seem to enjoy each other’s company for the most part, they should get married. By this time they’ve already recommenced their steady regimen of serious boning. Both Sharon and Rob are great-looking, smart, funny people, and their sexual compatibility is never an issue. (When Sharon hears that Rob was once serious about an ex-girlfriend and worries that she might not measure up, Rob reassures her: “Sex with her was, at best, nice. But you induce, like, a medical condition in me.”) Here, the question is, will they find that they have enough compatibility outside the bedroom to justify the tremendous leap they’re making together?

For some viewers, Catastrophe’s biggest suspense hook isn’t “How will Sharon and Rob’s relationship develop?” but “How well will Sharon Hogan and Rob Delaney work together?” (The two share credits as co-creators of the series and co-writers of its six-episode first season.) The chemistry between them is never less than pleasant, but the playing field may not be fully level. Hogan has made her name as the star and creator of such British series as Free Agents (which inspired a dreadful, short-lived U.S. remake) and Pulling (which has yet to inspire a U.S. remake—at least, not one that’s made it to air—though the threat is always there), and she has her own style: sophisticated urban wit with a side of raunchiness. (The sexual frankness of Pulling may be part of what’s prevented it becoming a staple of PBS pledge drives in the U.S. Coupling’s combination of sex jokes and British accents may add up to cultural respectability here, but it divides its point of view between an equal number of characters of both genders, whereas Pulling’s focus is definitely on the women.) She knows how to write for herself, and she knows how to play a sane woman who’s aware that she sometimes makes crazy choices. She’s even able to make Sharon funny and likable while making it clear that she can only go so far in dialing back on her bad habits when pregnant. Sitting at a café with Rob after a traumatic doctor’s visit—and on this show, all visits to the doctor for a pregnant woman are traumatic—she whines about how badly she could use a cigarette. Rob, always eager to make her happy, says, “Well, just have a cigarette if you want one. But put your wine down first.”

Sharon Hogan and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe.

Rob Delaney, on the other hand, is a stand-up comedian best known for his Twitter account; it has more than a million followers, and has earned Delaney a reputation as a pioneer in the specialized field of posting jokes online. Given that his previous experience at acting onscreen has been pretty much limited to brief appearances in sketch comedy shows such as Key and Peele, it’s tempting to file his rapid elevation to leading man here alongside the infamous sitcom based on Shit My Dad Says and wonder whether TV shows built around Internet memes might be the twenty-first century equivalent of those forgotten movies from the 1930s that offered fans of radio a chance to see The Mad Russian or The Great Gildersleeve in action.

Delaney isn’t bad. He’s perfectly pleasant—a word that comes to mind a lot while watching him—and he gets off some good lines. But he has a Teflon smoothness to go with his gentle, big-lug handsomeness, like a John Krasinski with less edge. When it’s mentioned that Rob is a recovering alcoholic—a condition that Delaney is known to share in real life—it’s used for a laugh on the social awkwardness of the revelation, and it doesn’t really come up again; whether by temperament or inexperience, Delaney doesn’t have Hogan’s ability to incorporate potentially uncomfortable character elements in his performance and make them funny. As an actor, he doesn’t convey that Rob might be seeking redemption for something he’s done in the past, so his determination to marry the near-stranger he got pregnant after a week of sex sometimes seems more psychotic than it might if his drive had some subtext.

Delaney’s limitations as an actor are most on full display in Catastrophe’s season finale, which builds to the kind of screaming argument that is both obscurely motivated and plainly visible as it’s coming from a mile away. It’s probably intended as a scene of unspoken fears and tensions boiling over, but because Delaney has done so little to suggest that Rob might be capable of building up unexpressed anger and resentment, it just feels like a whirlwind of meaningless emotion stirred up out of nothing for the sake of a cliffhanger ending. But up to that point, Catastrophe, which has a first-rate supporting cast that includes Carrie Fisher as Rob’s mother, Sarah Niles as Sharon’s frenemy, Mark Bonnar as her husband, and Tobias Menzies as her terrifying doctor, is funny and charming enough to expand Hogan’s American cult. (Expanding Hogan’s American cult mainly comes down to making it possible for Americans to see her work.) And though Delaney may not be able to match Hogan for comic edge, his sweetness brings out her romantic side; you do want the two of them to make it work. (This show does a lot for the classic romantic-comedy idea that trading wisecracks is an excellent way to fall in love.) The show, which ends with Sharon about to give birth, has been renewed for a second season. With any luck, Catastrophe might be the rare TV comedy that gets funnier with the addition of a baby.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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