Cringe-Watching Catastrophe

For the last few weeks at bedtime, my youngest son has requested that I read […]

Carrie Willard / 5.16.17

For the last few weeks at bedtime, my youngest son has requested that I read him a story out of a book called “Farmyard Tales.” These are innocuous little stories of Apple Tree Farm, and the family who lives there. They are sweet and lovely, and also criminally boring. They are perfect bedtime stories for a tired little kid, though, and I send him off to dreamland with pleasant little stories about goats and pigs and their little farmyard antics galloping through his head.

By contrast, my husband and I then go downstairs to our living room to fold piles of clean laundry and cringe-watch the third season of the British series available on Amazon Prime, Catastrophe. If you’re not familiar with the premise of this show, it’s about an American man who travels to London for work, hooks up with a pretty young English-Irish woman, and then finds out she’s pregnant after he has returned home to the U.S. He returns to her, and they begin a life together.

It sounds romantic-comedy-ish: Boy Meets Girl, Boy and Girl have Baby In A Cute Delivery Scene, Boy and Girl Live Happily Ever After. But the writers of the show took a different direction with it. The comedy of a romantic comedy is there, and I guess a little bit of romance, but they fast forwarded into the real grit of human relationships. As you might imagine, this leads to very human behavior, and the title of the series, Catastrophe. According to wikipedia, the name of the show comes from a quote from the movie Zorba the Greek: “I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.” That kind of sums it up, doesn’t it? The full catastrophe.

To be clear, the show does not portray Job-like catastrophes, or even natural disasters or war. These are all relatively minor human-made messes, and as my great-grandmother used to say, “There’s no trouble like the trouble you make yourself.”
The writers of the show, Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, also star together in the show, and they aimed to make something different than the neat and tidy rom-coms or sit-coms that usually portray domestic life. Delaney said in an interview with The Guardian:

…we’re fed up with things that don’t show the whole gamut of what a relationship is. We wanted to cover all the bases, including the ugly parts, where you want to kill each other with a hammer, in addition to the, you know, bimonthly lovemaking.

I think that’s why my husband and I watch Catastrophe, cringing the entire time. We see the ugly parts, and we sometimes see ourselves. Sure, there might be something somewhat gratifying about watching the grown-up version of Farmyard Tales if such a thing existed, but I’m not sure we’d see much of ourselves on Apple Tree Farm. Instead, on Catastrophe, we see real humans on the screen, albeit more attractive and hilarious humans, but real nonetheless. They’re not always nice to each other, and they’re definitely not always nice to the people around them. They struggle with addiction and strange family members and money. They rifle through each other’s internet search histories, they occasionally ignore their children in the middle of a heated argument, and they say horrible things to the other parents at the playground. They’re rather horrible at forgiveness. They make terrible decisions, and we can’t save them from their terrible decisions any more than we can save ourselves from our own.

There’s nothing quite like holding up a mirror to oneself, maybe in the form of a series about hilariously terrible decision making, to make one appreciate the grace we receive at the cross. We’re not particularly great at forgiveness. There’s no trouble like the trouble we make ourselves. If we’re relying on the romantic comedy vision of what our life should be like, we’re going to be waiting for a while. And the thing is, we want to do better, and we want the characters on Catastrophe to do better. We want Rob and Sharon to get their business together, make better decisions, and maybe swear a tiny bit less. That would make for terribly boring television, for one thing, and we need some entertainment to get through the piles of laundry. But if we pretended our own catastrophes didn’t exist, we’d be further from our realization that we need grace and forgiveness.

Catastrophe takes the human condition and lays it all on the line. I don’t know how Season 3 will end, but I predict that it won’t end with a tidy little bow on it. The more I see Sharon and Rob struggle through their daily catastrophe, the more I’m reminded of our own need for streams of mercy never ceasing.