The premiere of Catastrophe’s third series (that’s season in British-speak) makes a passing reference to the political upheaval taking place in its universe, as Sharon Horgan’s namesake character attempts to blame the rocky state of her marriage to Rob (Rob Delaney) on “Brexit…and your new President…” And indeed, it’d have been easy to write a season that leaned on these seismic shifts for laughs and conflict alike- especially considering how politically vocal Delaney and Horgan are. But instead, we get a far more personal and emotional set of conflicts. The result? An incredibly moving season that manages to remain hilarious while dealing with some of the darkest content yet.
The tail end of season two shows Rob falling off the wagon after a friend’s drug overdose, and Sharon spending more time worrying about her ailing father; the new season dives even deeper into this pair of problems while also addressing the fallout from last season’s marital indiscretions: first Rob’s brush with infidelity, and then Sharon’s impulsive response. These are heavy topics, ones that often seem too big to find humor in. At times, I wondered if the tone was in any way affected by Horgan’s other current project, HBO’s dark but gently funny Divorce. And yet, the trademark banter that Horgan and Delaney have infused into their characters lightens the mood at just the right moment. A common point of praise for Catastrophe is the degree to which Rob and Sharon seem to genuinely find one another funny; that spirit shines through and provides a sense of optimism even in the show’s toughest moments.
Apart from the central two characters, several supporting cast members step up admirably this season. Mark Bonnar’s Chris cements himself as season MVP when his normally caustic nature turns nurturing as he confronts Rob about his secret drinking; he similarly turns his protective eye toward his ex-wife Fran by scaring off her new boyfriend in a bar. This pair of scenes goes a long way to reform the idea of Chris that we’ve built over the last two seasons, and I look forward to seeing who he’ll become in future seasons. The other standout, who we regrettably won’t get to see evolve further, is the late Carrie Fisher. In the finale, her late-night exchange with her onscreen son Rob, not only gives higher stakes to the secret he’s harbored during the season, but is a beautifully emotional moment from a character previously known for her brash and at times tone-deaf approach to interactions with family. Fisher’s last appearance on the show sets up a major turning point in the series, and I am fascinated to see how it’ll inform coming storylines.
Speaking about coming storylines, viewers familiar with Rob Delaney’s life story will recognize parallels between his character’s arc this season and his own life story en route to sobriety and the events that brought him to it. He’s been incredibly forthcoming in sharing his own story both on his blog and in his 2013 memoir, and yet watching parts of it come to life through his character felt jarring- and, newly sober since the end of last season, emotional in a whole new way. While this is far from new territory for this style of comedy – most notably, Marc Maron addressed it in the final season of Maron – Catastrophe is the only show for which I’ve been a viewer both before sobriety and after. It has brought something extra to the viewing experience and heightened the anticipation for what might come next for this fictionalized version of Rob.
Rob’s path to recovery runs alongside Sharon’s rapidly transforming family dynamic; season three has her coping with her father’s continued deterioration from dementia, and negotiating her relationship with her adult brother in the process. She wrestles with how to be most helpful to her parents while coping with financial woes in her own home, a situation not uncommon for many thirty- and forty-somethings. Like Delaney, Horgan brings her dry wit to these moments before allowing emotion to seep into them authentically. And by the time her character finds her moment of catharsis in the finale, the viewer’s right there with her- equal parts sad and satisfied.
“Equal parts sad and satisfied” feels like an apt overall descriptor for this latest season of Catastrophe, and yet it also feels incomplete. For all the genuine emotion this admittedly dark season evokes in the viewer, there’s also so much to laugh about. The laughs are different from the first two seasons, at times harder to find, but they’re earned- and that makes them more rewarding. In a season that arrived amidst such a difficult time politically, it’s an apt reminder that the laughs are there- we may just have to work a little harder to find them.
Seasons 1-3 of Catastrophe are streaming on Amazon Prime now.