'Catastrophe' Bridges the Great British-American Divide

The premise of 'Catastrophe' is that human beings – of whatever nationality – share the common language of sex.

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Sharon Horgan is sitting on a table next to and Rob Delaney, who is sitting on a chair, as they pose for a publicity shot for 'Catastrophe.'
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in 'Catastrophe.'Credit: Linda Nylind

Somehow, the Israeli TV providers (Yes and HOT) seem to perceive American TV fare (new series or new seasons thereof) as hot news, to be presented to the Israeli viewers ASAP. This acronym stands for “as soon as possible,” one of the spelling shortcuts that developed with the culture of texting, which has superseded, in the digital era, the simple craft of mere writing. It means that if you are a Yes subscriber, you sometimes have to tune in at five in the morning to be in sync with American viewers; on HOT there is a three-day 
delay with the American premiere.

British TV offerings, on the other hand, get to us in a more leisurely fashion. Season six (and last) of “Downton Abbey” has aired in the U.K. already (with a Christmas special still to come), but is not yet on offer on Israeli channels. Whenever a British TV series becomes a WWF (world wide phenomenon), like the Cumberbatched “Sherlock,” it does get preferential treatment (scheduling the broadcast concurrently with the one in the series’ country of origin). Otherwise, like the series I intend to ruminate about here, “Catastrophe,” the Israeli viewer has to bide his or her time. The sitcom is the brainchild (a term used advisedly; read on and see) of the Irish writer and actress Sharon Horgan and the American stand-up comedian Rob Delaney. It first aired on Channel 4 in the U.K. at the beginning and end of 2015 (season one with six episodes; season two with six more). The first season ended its scheduled run on HOT and is available on HOT VOD; the second season’s broadcast in Israel has not been scheduled yet.

This hiatus is, in my view, just the time to think about the series, its nature and charm. First of all, its premise is the great divide between the U.S. and the U.K., the New World and the Old. It has famously been said (by Oscar Wilde, in his story “The Canterville Ghost,” 1887) that “we [the English] have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” About 140 years later, in our global village of common screens, TV series have realized the plot potential of this discrepancy, and explored it in “Episodes,” the British-American series starring Tamsin Greig, Stephen Mangan and Matt LeBlanc. Thus it was made clear that all other things (language) being equal, it is much more about mores and manners, than about verbs and manors.

The premise of “Catastrophe” is that human beings – of whatever nationality – share the common language of sex. That’s what brings Rob and Sharon together. (Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan co-wrote their respective parts.) Rob is an American advertising exec (think “Mad Men”) on a week’s jaunt in London, and Sharon is an Irish teacher, 40 plus and single. A wild week of going at it, whenever and wherever, results in a fetus in her womb, even before either of them knows the surname of the other (on his smartphone she is listed as “Sharon London sex”). In that way, an unborn baby becomes the one thing in common between the two, all other things being very uncommon. And that, let me assure you, is not a spoiler, and neither does it spoil matters for the individuals involved.

In keeping with the way things happen in this our world, Horgan and Delaney stumbled on each other via Twitter, and sensing an affinity in their sense of humor – another one of the universal common languages, apart from sex, and one that can deliver the wildest misunderstandings and the funniest of quips – decided to develop a series for themselves.

As far as can be gleaned from interviews, the series is not based on first-hand (if this is the human organ involved) experience, meaning that Horgan and Delaney did not become – accidentally or intentionally – a child’s parents in real life. Rather, after realizing that both of them consider the fact of “having a baby” a ballast, and not only bliss, for a developing relationship, they went on exploring the situation, piling onto its inherent intricacies as many difficulties as they were able to come up with, and then some -– and with gusto.

To begin with, she is single, with a biological clock ticking, and has a very dysfunctional (i.e., normally British) family; while he is American, single, and has grown up without a father but with an exceptionally self-centered mother. The mother is played by Carrie Fisher, who apart from being Princess Leia Organa in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, also published an autobiographical novel about her troubled relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds.

On the face of it, they face the fetal fact that brings them together with a surprising (for the audience and other characters in the series) equanimity. Almost without any hesitation they decide to keep the baby, and eventually gear up for the impeding birth and 
raising the child together, without knowing a thing about each other. They learn the facts of life (about each other’s former spouses) as they go along, while sleeping together and having sex (the series is verbally consummate on matters of the flesh). They weather the difficulties – relocating for him, with all the problems that entails; life-changing circumstances, hormonal imbalances, and gynecological problems for her – with surprising resources of humor.

By the end of the first season they do manage, against all odds, to get 
married. For us, in Israel, it still remains to be seen how they will tackle the first months of parenthood. Judging by the last episode of season one, it’s not going to be easy; but it could be, at least for the viewers, a lot of fun.

The only thing I was left wondering about, between seasons, is the title of the series, “Catastrophe,” which implies a disaster of cataclysmic proportions, and when applied to the upcoming birth of a baby, in whatever circumstances (and those in the series, though unusual, are not too dire) seems to be an exaggeration. However, a peek into the OED revealed that the etymology of the word, from the Greek, is simply a “sudden overturning,” which is a very apt description of the matter at hand (or rather, in womb, for the first season; in a cradle for the second one).