A Catastrophic Breath of Fresh Air

written by Sarah McLean

I’ve alluded to in previous posts how sitcoms change with the times and often reflect current societal patterns. There have been many in the last few years that have turned the traditional sitcom model on its head. One of the best examples, in my opinion, is Catastrophe, a BBC series currently streaming on Amazon about an American man who knocks up a British woman during a one-night stand. Created by non-household names Sharon Horgen and Rob Delaney, they do what most shows don’t: not play to viewers’ preconceived expectations.

Horgen and Delaney created, wrote and star in the show. I think it’s because they are virtual unknowns (Horgen an actor/writer from England, Delaney an American stand-up comic) to the mainstream that they were able to come up with a different perspective from what we normally see. Rarely does something truly refreshing happen on TV, and rarely with comedies.

I love that this show unflinchingly dares to be different. When you get down to sitcoms’ nuts and bolts, they are all the same – family or friends (acting as a family) in a home or work environment who are at odds with each other. They all go through the same tropes. Sitcoms differentiate themselves through their jokes and point of views.

In Catastrophe, when you think (assume) either character will go through these tropes, they don’t. Instead, they act like normal, real life people in a real life situation, warts and all. Neither character reacts or behaves the way we’ve been mindlessly trained to see actors in television shows react. In a way, they are jolting our brains from the haze of seen-it-before-know-how-it-will-play-out expectations we have when we watch something. As nice as those warm fuzzy moments we’ve come to know and love are, sometimes, it’s just nice to not know how a story will play out and to be pleasantly surprised by its outcome.

In one episode a mutual friend catches Rob kissing another woman. So far, a common sitcom story-arc. However, the woman he is kissing, whom he despises, was the one who initiated the kiss. The onlooker does not know this. Rob did everything he could to stop the kiss from happening. The onlooker conveniently does not see this. So far, nothing out of the ordinary for a sitcom. In the traditional TV model the girlfriend, fiancé, or wife finds out and gets mad. A conflict arises. It takes the whole episode (or more) to resolve the conflict. In Catastrophe, his fiancé finds out, pretends to be mad, but only to jerk him around, laughs in his face, relieving the tension, then states she knows he would never voluntarily kiss this woman he hates. This wasn’t even the crux of the episode, merely a few scenes in a much larger story. Ahhh. Refreshing. As viewers, we all too often wonder why characters don’t have common sense. These characters do.

Maybe it’s because the BBC has proven more willing to take risks that Catastrophe was better suited to air there than be shopped in America first. Let’s face it; we do steal all their good ideas after they’ve been proven hits, of course. This also goes to show how streaming services like Amazon (and especially Hulu and Netflix) are willing to take chances on new and exciting projects (usually from England) that don’t fit the mold of “network” TV. Hopefully more shows like this will become the new normal.

Season 2 of Catastrophe is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Check out both seasons and let me know what you think! Does it feel different than other comedies you’re watching?

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