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Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe. Image: Channel 4.

An Irish school teacher and an American advertising executive on a business trip meet in London. Their six-night fling results in a pregnancy; they decide to go through with it, and to marry. The series is called Catastrophe. ‘A terrible thing has happened,’ says Rob to Sharon. ‘Let’s make the best of it.’

It’s that sense of irony, derived from the optimism required to work through a terrifying false step, that drives Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s brilliant, hard-edged British sitcom, inspired by Horgan’s own pregnancy six months into a relationship. Far beyond the usual rom-com arc – the halo period of falling in love – or the ending of a slow, painful breakup, Catastrophe throws us into the muddy middle – staying in love, and in like, while surviving a long term relationship. There’s no fate, no destiny, and no pat conclusions. There aren’t even any declarations of love. Here, a marriage is a pragmatic, yet deeply felt and impactful task shared between two perennial strangers.

There’s no fate, no destiny, and no pat conclusions. There aren’t even any declarations of love.

The first season shows Rob and Sharon getting to know each other through the project of pregnancy and parenthood. The second season begins in the middle of an argument, and traces the couple as they reveal their nastier selves – Rob a name-calling alcoholic, Sharon a selfish, bridge-burning hedonist – while the third descends into the realm of two people making irreparable life errors. Darker in tone, season three starts moments after the end of the second, as Rob confronts Sharon about a secret birth control purchase. She’s not the kind of person who can hide anything, and soon confesses a drunken infidelity.

In the next episode, he laments: ‘You had the female response, which is to go nuclear. I had the male response, which is to bury the pain, and go jerk off in the basement.’

‘Well, I can’t keep saying sorry. If I could cut off the hand that…’ she trails off.

‘Well, I would endorse that,’ scowls Rob, turning away passive aggressively, ‘if you having less hands wouldn’t fuck up my life and make things more difficult.’ As with many scenes, it ends abruptly: Horgan and Delaney know that the bleak truth is funnier than any throwaway gag executed in the traditional sitcom rhythm.

Horgan and Delaney know that the bleak truth is funnier than any throwaway gag executed in the traditional sitcom rhythm.

Following the grand tradition of bleak British comedy, Catastrophe – comprising tightly-written six-episode narrative arcs rather than an endless spool of half-hour episodes – is loaded with these kinds of frustrated, guilt-laden exchanges of marital intimacy (many of the arguments unfold while they’re in bed). But it’s realism, not nihilism, that governs the series. Sharon is a wonderful creation – often infuriating, a brazenly unskilled liar making adolescent mistakes even as she laughs them off. And yet Catastrophe is a show not about difficult women, but difficult relationships – as all relationships are. Any form of togetherness, coupledom, is fraught. Why do some run from it, and others cling to it? Why do some crave it even when they are apparently incapable of expressing it?

The sitcom form has always been anchored around the indestructible nuclear family: the infuriating, wacky characters (sexist patriarchs, eye-rolling mothers, zany children) of Everybody Loves Raymond and The Simpsons, or even more grown-up family comedy-dramas like Transparent and Six Feet Under, drive each other to the brink of madness, only to ultimately confirm their attachments to each other. Catastrophe’s radicalness is that it refuses to provide a TV model of marriage. Rather, it looks face-on at a relationship, constantly on the brink, within the chaos of an accidental family unit. That dramatic tension – that Sharon and Rob could feasibly break up at any moment – gives even the quietest, snidest remarks a bitter bite.

Throughout the series, at the centre of Rob and Sharon’s marriage is their genuine friendship. They get along, they’re goofy together, they’re allies who like one another. When Sharon calls a friend a cunt behind their back, Rob just laughs. When she calls herself a simple person – ‘I am. I’m Irish, we’re simple people’ – he responds with true endearment: ‘An Irish milkmaid is a simple person. You’re a cosmopolitan clothes fiend who consciously left Ireland to come here and shop.’ So, late in season three, after the sting of her unfaithfulness has turned to resentment, it hurts to watch when she puts her head on Rob’s shoulder and asks, ‘when are you going to start liking me again?’

By this stage, Rob has sunk deep into old habits. An incurable emotional eater, he stinks constantly of cheese and onion chips, slinks off to Burger King after an especially vicious fight, and wraps hot dogs in ham before dipping them in hummus late at night while giving Sharon the cold shoulder.

Catastrophe’s radicalness is that it refuses to provide a TV model of marriage.

In Australia, the series hasn’t yet found the devoted audience, nor critical adoration, as it has in the UK and the US. Perhaps that’s to do with the undignified time-slot allocated by the ABC (season three’s finale aired at 11.30pm on a Sunday night) and the absence of a strong marketing push by either its broadcaster or DVD distributor. Many of the finest comedies of the present moment swim around a go-nowhere theme – Love, Search Party, Atlanta, Enlightened and Please Like Me have all plunged us into the worlds of characters who are at a dead end and yet don’t seem to realise it.

But Catastrophe is not about people in their thirties making the same blunders as they did in their twenties. Even at the end of season three, Rob and Sharon’s children Frankie and Muireann are rarely seen on-screen, though their presence raises the dramatic stakes massively. It’s a sly ongoing gag that keeps the focus suffocatingly close on Sharon and Rob: the show isn’t about the parent-child relationship, nor how families work, but how having a family complicates a couple’s bond forever.

Catastrophe never blinks. It remains deeply committed, in a teeth-grittingly optimistic manner, to the project of relationships. It’s cynical in the sunniest way possible. Rob and Sharon have as good a chance as anyone at lasting the distance; all relationships are an irrational leap of faith. And that, perhaps, is the series’ wryest, cagiest, most ironic joke of all.