Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s sharp comedy Catastrophe gets to the truth of love and marriage, in all its strain and splendour.By Helen Razer.
“Marriage is hard work,” says Rosamund Pike’s ice-blonde antagonist Amy in the movie Gone Girl. Few would dispute this claim, and, in the opening minutes of the film, all see this marriage as a naturalistic study in such ordinary labour. We see a couple’s individual dreams lost to compromise, their happiness wrinkled by money. We see that familiar and hazardous pause in mutual desire. Then, we see Amy flee to the luxury log cabin of an ex-lover, whom she brutally slaughters, after first painting her kitchen in blood in an effort to frame her unspectacularly bad husband for capital murder. This is no longer a film about the ordinary dramas of intimacy, which I thought was a bit of a pity.
It’s hardly as though reflections of our everyday love can be seen every day. Romantic partnerships tend very often to unfold on screen in happy marriage or grisly murder. The true horror, or the true bliss, of our longer attachments are so rarely drawn in realism. We can generally learn more about intimate longing from a stylised Hitchcock or Lynch than any one of the hundreds of shows that purport to have real marriage as their focus.
There have been credible realist television moments, though. The first season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None gave us a young couple pulled slowly apart by the force of their generation’s chronic and particular disenchantments. Season five of Sex and the City, a show not broadly celebrated for its honest depictions of love, or of anything much, gave us “real” love interest Berger. He is moved to end his relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie by his professional shame. He, an underappreciated novelist otherwise moved to write at length and in detail, quickly scrawls “I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.” on a Post-it note, never to appear in our heroine’s walk-up again. An act of great, if ordinary, cowardice that follows great, if ordinary, passion. That, for mine, is more like it.
The great, ordinary and horrific nature of this love thing has been left largely unexplored on our screens. Producer and screenwriter Judd Apatow keeps having a stab at it – Girls, Knocked Up, the truly unendurable Netflix series Love – but seems only to butcher it every time. Even virtuosic rom-com writers such as Nancy Meyers or the late Nora Ephron – respectively known for the blockbusters It’s Complicated and When Harry Met Sally – perfect it to death, and Woody Allen, for all his talents, just kills it with idealised sexism.
But even the best artists will encounter problems in honestly depicting a love partnership, once described by Jerry Seinfeld as “like a game of chess except the board is flowing water, the pieces are made of smoke”.
In Catastrophe – its third season to be aired by ABC later this year, and a fourth in the works – a recurring character repeats this account of marriage as his own. Frankly, smoke and water are as good a way to evoke it as any. A thing like long-term love to which we vulnerable and social creatures are overwhelmingly doomed presents itself to us as both so natural and so ineffably strange, it’s not the most appealing study for an artist.
It’s not that marriage is too hard a subject for art. It’s probably that it is considered too boring – best left to the makers of movies such as Marley & Me. Co-writers and stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, however, don’t seem the sort of artists who’d spurn boredom, smoke or water. The pair, who met and formed a writing partnership on Twitter at a time when the platform was overwhelmingly a place to share trivial life details rather than Trump-induced political neuroses, are not easily bored.
They’re not, by their own admission, easily pleased, either. If the trivial details so crucial to their show about a marriage are not funny, they write and rewrite them until they are. There is strictly no straying for any cast member from the dialogue they write together which delivers genuine-seeming funnies such as that in the early and uncertain phase of their relationship: “You let me put my penis in your mouth but you won’t let me put my T-shirts in your drawer.” Such things, the pair says, are always delivered by actors as written.
There was, however, an improvisational exception made for Carrie Fisher, whose performance as Delaney’s character’s mother counts among the last she filmed. Watch the series and you’ll see that the great comic actor, and great comic script doctor, can ad lib to the standard set by Horgan and Delaney in this impeccably written show. It would be a spoiler to recount her final scene, shot very shortly before her death, but it’s both pure Fisher and pure Catastrophe. There she is, propped up like an ordinary person in front of the telly, when she begins to make cruel cracks about mental illness. It’s pitch-black, pitch-perfect and deliciously self-referential. Just like her; just like this show.
In interviews promoting what started as a word-of-mouth triumph, Horgan and Delaney have joked that “approximately 49 per cent” of their writing is based on their real-life experience of marriages to other people. Rob Delaney, open in press and on social media about his history of alcoholism, plays a recovering addict named Rob. Sharon Horgan, whose every public utterance seems to indicate a great and self-conscious irritation with life, plays an irritable woman named Sharon. If we forget – and I find I do this with ease – that their often filthy, very frequent gags are the perfected words of unnaturally funny people, then the Catastrophe dialogue can seem as though it were ripped from our own real-life pillow-talk.
There’s this peculiar thing that I have done in domestic partnerships and, until Catastrophe, I’d always thought of it as my unpleasant psychological quirk alone. When the relationship has seemed a little too sexless, or a little too vulnerable to the troubles of everyday life, I take my partner on a tour of the more tolerable past. Remember that time we used our frequent flyer miles to go to Cairns in the winter and I didn’t believe that I’d seen a blue butterfly, because I was so drunk. Remember when we met. Well, apparently, Sharon does this, too.
The couple, now with two children, visit Paris in the attempt to revive their spark. Sharon, still lactating, has forgotten her breast pump. Rob’s high-school French fails a test at the pharmacy when he is unable to convey that his wife’s nipples are shortly to erupt. Dinner is a messy affair, and their high-end hotel room does not incite the chic passion of “Visit France” brochures. Sharon falls into her husband’s embrace anyhow and recalls the good times. “My favourite time in the last year was when we pretended my arms didn’t work, remember? And you washed my hair and put that weird outfit on me.”
This slapstick tribute to the Out of Africa shampoo scene would have made for good comic viewing. It’s testament to the pair’s restraint as writers, however, that they chose only to describe it. The weird things that people who live with and love each other do together are funny. That these weird things can become cherished memories, even a means by their narration for the survival of the relationship, is funnier, and more touching still. We must hold on to this thing, these characters say, by the most comic means.
Such comic absurdity works to build what is, in my view, the most plausibly tedious, and wonderful, love relationship I have seen on screen. There have been other creditable dramatic or semi-comic attempts – the TV dramedy Please Like Me comes to mind, or the film tragedy Blue Valentine. But perhaps the true bathos of marriage can only be convincingly revealed by writers working to a strict gag-per-minute regimen. My mother advised me once about withstanding the strain of a love partnership: “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.” In watching this very affecting show, it occurred to me that if I were not laughing so much at this couple, they would not have the power to make me cry about love.
Sharon is a testy wife, resentful of her need for love and very unwilling to offer her husband evidence of her high regard. Nonetheless, there is a moment where she spontaneously advises Rob, played by a tolerably handsome man but one who is purposely shot to appear a little plain and pudgy, that he should become a “big and tall model”. It’s so bittersweet. This is the sort of thing we say, in uninhibited seriousness, to our partners. It’s funny, yes. But it’s also proof that we do not love a person because they are special. We make them into special people with our ongoing acts of love.
The “full catastrophe” of ordinary family life, as described by Anthony Quinn’s Zorba, can be glimpsed in this show. The impediments of our vanity, our useless ambition and our shrinking pay packets are on good display, with regular, if irreverent, nods to current events – at one point in this British-based series, a character blames their infidelity on Brexit.
At all times, real love partnership is shown not as a simple choice between Leave and Remain, but as a decision to be made by the hour.
CULTURE Huon Valley Mid-winter Fest
The Apple Shed, Grove, Tasmania, July 14-16
VISUAL ART Cairns Indigenous Art Fair
Venues throughout Cairns, July 14-16
INSTALLATION Greater Together
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until September 17
VISUAL ART Sentient Lands
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until October
THEATRE Noises Off
Playhouse, Melbourne, until August 12
VISUAL ART Mike Parr, LEFT FIELD
Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, until August 19
THEATRE Australian Graffiti
Wharf Theatres, Sydney, July 13-August 12
Oxford Art Factory, Sydney, July 9
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 8, 2017 as "A long warm bathos". Subscribe here.