“Catastrophe” is a delightful study in contradictions. It's a high-concept comedy with low-key execution, and it's at once filthy on a level that's impressive even in the year 2015, yet almost shockingly normal despite that.
The series – its six-episode first season aired on Channel 4 on the UK earlier this year, and is now streaming on Amazon Prime – casts its stars and creators, Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, as an American businessman and an Irish schoolteacher who have a fling while he's on a week-long trip to the UK. They get on well enough to at least discuss seeing each other again the next time he's in town, but then Sharon discovers that she's pregnant and Rob decides to set his whole life aside to move in with her and help raise the baby.
This is a premise from which rom-coms and sitcom hackery can be born – see “Accidentally On Purpose,” a deservedly short-lived CBS sitcom with Jenna Elfman – but Delaney and Horgan astutely take the situation, and its characters, seriously. They're both older – in a later episode, Sharon is mortified to hear the OB refer to her condition as a geriatric pregnancy – and recognize that this may be their last chance to have a kid. And in their limited exposure to one another, they've found enough to like – and to trust in a potential co-parent – that moving in together seems more a flimsy idea than the outright catastrophe promised by the title. They're just two people in an unexpected situation, trying to make the best of it.
If you follow Delaney on Twitter – where he's mastered the art of the comic tweet better than anyone else in his trade – your first, third and ninth thoughts of him all likely involve disgusting sexual imagery. (That, or the hashtag #ChristianDadsWhoVape.) Delaney and Horgan certainly haven't skimped on that stuff in “Catastrophe,” which gleefully explores the many gross things about sex, pregnancy, and parenting. Late in the first episode, Sharon takes Rob to dinner with her frenemy Fran (Ashley Jensen) and Fran's husband Chris (Mark Bonnar); Chris tries to warn Rob from actually witnessing the birth, describing something that happened while Fran was in labor in such graphic, colorful language that it's almost poetic.
Yet despite the show's rampant, unapologetic filthiness, “Catastrophe” is surprisingly sweet – a romantic comedy that considers the romance part at least as important as the humor – and Rob and Sharon themselves are drawn on a very human, sympathetic level. The most shocking thing about Rob, particularly if you know Delaney from Twitter, is how normal he seems. He can tell a joke – when one of Sharon's students asks if he knows President Obama's children, he deadpans, “I know Sasha, but I don't know Malia” – but he's an average guy in almost every way but height. And where the dynamic in this situation often involves the woman having to drag the man into maturity, here the scales are tipped ever so slightly in his favor, because both creators recognize how much fun it is to watch Sharon struggle with the enormity of what's happening to her body and life.
Along the course of these six episodes, the show touches on various rom-com tropes about disapproving parents (Carrie Fisher is, as always, a treat as Rob's cynical mother), secret meetings with exes, bachelor and bachelorette parties that spin out of control, etc. But they're all dealt with in such a specific and simple way that they feel unique to these characters and their world, rather than the obligatory stumbles on the path to a happy ending.
And part of the point of these six episodes (another season is already in the works) is that there can't be a happy ending in this situation – not because it's not happy, but because parenthood isn't a story that just ends with the birth. Whatever happens with Rob and Sharon's relationship, these two are tied together now, for all the headaches and heartaches and PTSD-inducing smells that are to come.
After racing through these episodes over the weekend, I can't wait to see what's next.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org