'Catastrophe,' peak TV's finest love story, drifts away as beautifully as it began
Spoiler alert: This review discusses plot points in the final season of Amazon Prime's "Catastrophe."
We've come to the end of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney's exceptional British dramedy "Catastrophe," the show I keep telling people to watch when they complain about having nothing good left to watch.
"Catastrophe's" fourth and final season (streaming now on Amazon Prime) concludes a love story that began four years ago, when a fictional Sharon and fictional Rob (played by Horgan and Delaney, who also created and wrote the series) first hooked up the old-fashioned way: They met at a London bar and, after some flirty banter, went back to his hotel for an enthusiastic lay -- with a quick montage of encores that take place over the next few days.
Great for them, and not bad for the viewer who finds most TV sex to be weirdly sanitized of any trace of silliness or human joy.
Rob, an American advertising account executive, finished his business trip, bid farewell to Sharon (a schoolteacher) and flew home to Boston. A month later, Sharon called Rob (her number shows up on his iPhone as "Sharon London Sex") and told him she was pregnant. He returned to London and suggested -- with a combination of optimism and dread -- that he and Sharon ought to give parenting a whirl, seeing as how they were both 40ish.
Sharon agreed, and they forged impulsively ahead, building a family through love and devotion, but also out of a shared, highly sharpened cynicism toward the rest of the world.
"Catastrophe" brought out the sourpuss in its characters, with only the occasional redemptive ray of sunshine. All of its secondary characters -- from Sharon's spitefully self-absorbed brother, Fergal (Jonathan Forbes), to the late Carrie Fisher's magnificent cameo appearances as Rob's perpetually irritated mother, Mia -- helped reinforce a subtext of misanthropy. Some viewers find that "Catastrophe" carries a strong warning against ever getting married. I always saw it as a ringing endorsement.
Of all the love stories that peak TV has thrown at us in the modern era, "Catastrophe" was usually the one that felt most genuine, replete with the burpy, bloaty, leaky details of midlife intimacy. It's for viewers who feel exhausted by the demands of prestige dramas and the preciousness of hipper (and often twee) millennial-focused comedies.
People who make TV and people who just like to watch TV should go back and study the smooth efficiency of "Catastrophe's" first episode -- how the attraction between Horgan and Delaney barges in, how their dialogue dances between cutting and affectionate and how quickly the show brings us into a mutual, yet tenuous, comfort zone. And, at just six short episodes per season, it's the easiest homework for grown-ups I've ever assigned. You could knock out the entire series in a couch-bound weekend.
As it progressed, the show posed thornier challenges for Sharon and Rob -- right up to this season's final and faintly ambiguous walk-off.
By Season 2, we'd jumped ahead a few years: their son, Frankie, is a toddler; the arrival of another baby, a daughter (given the nearly unpronounceable Irish name Muireann), is imminent. Season 3 headed into darker stuff, as the marriage strained under the weight of parenting duties. Sharon was tempted to stray, while Rob, an alcoholic, secretly started drinking again. Last we saw them, he'd wrecked the car and tearfully confessed to her that he was drunk.
Season 4 opens with Rob going before the judge, who takes away his driver's license and sentences him to community service working weekends in a charity thrift shop. "You're a criminal in a neck brace," Sharon tells Rob. "What a catch."
"I have my AA meeting tonight," he tells her.
"What? Again?" she huffs.
"You don't exactly graduate from alcoholism," he says.
"So I'm supposed to watch 'Game of Thrones' on my own, like a pervert?"
To ease her own anxiety, Sharon goes through a bout of shoplifting -- and is caught. "That's like a garden-variety cry for help," Rob tells her.
"Well then help me," she replies.
The middle part of Season 4 struggles slightly to reclaim some of the show's earlier momentum, as if Delaney and Horgan are trying to tell us that they've taken this story as far as it can go. It couldn't have been an easy season to produce and finish: Fisher died just after Season 3 wrapped; Delaney and his wife, Leah, lost one of their children, 2-year-old Henry, to cancer in early 2018.
Perhaps redirecting such sadness (or perhaps not), Delaney and Horgan give their deepest and most moving performances yet in the series finale, when Rob and Sharon arrive for a holiday in Massachusetts, only to learn that Mia has died of a heart attack.
Dealing with his mother's funeral along with a sudden Boston-based job offer and the news that Sharon is expecting a third child, Rob lashes out at his wife. It's painful to watch in a show that started out with so much snarky-sparky attraction.
They do reconcile, at the end of a sandy beach road. While their children doze in the car with the windows down, they sit by the water and resolve to make it work. "If I met you right now," Rob tells Sharon, "I'd still want to (have sex with) you for a week and get you pregnant and marry you and mess it all up from there."
"Let's do that, then," she says.
Looking out at the sea, Sharon suggests a swim, while the kids are sleeping. Rob declines, but once she undresses and quickly wades out into the deeper water, he notices a sign warning of dangerous riptides.
He looks back at the car, where his children are, and out at his wife. He splashes out after her. Together they float and embrace happily, but this closing moment carries just a hint of danger. Did they swim out too far? (Is this the catastrophe?) As the camera ascends and credits roll, we see just how much water separates them from the shore. Yet there is also the feeling that they will be OK, that there is always going to be an undertow in this dynamic. For a show that came on so strong, it's a curious but also brilliantly quiet way to go.
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"Catastrophe" (six episodes) is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
• Disclosure: Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post.