Season 3 of Catastrophe tackles everything from job loss to infidelity, alcoholism to addiction recovery, and death—and it’s hysterically funny. The show’s appeal has always been about the humor in life’s, well, catastrophes and the latest season, which returns to Amazon on April 28, continues to explore the comedic possibilities of dark moments.
This season opens chronologically (a departure from Season 2 which began years after the first season concluded) with Rob (Rob Delaney) unemployed after a sexual harassment mishap and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) returning to work after unemployment, which brings financial strain. The couple, now two children and a fancy house post their initial meeting, deal too with the fallout from Sharon’s infidelity. Infidelity, perhaps, might be too strong a word here— transgression might be better—but in typical Catastrophe fashion the definition of such terms, including the parameters of a marriage, are the source of the show’s charming and absurdist humor. Sharon debates what constitutes cheating: Kissing? Looking at another man’s penis? Holding it? The semantics are important, as are its comic potentials. In way of explanation, Sharon stutteringly offers up “Brexit,” and “your new president,” as the reason for her behavior. That arc, combined with Rob’s floundering in the midst of unemployment and the ridiculous lives of the show’s wonderful minor characters (yes, Carrie Fisher returns), are the crux of Season 3. Those pressure points and the comedic chemistry between Horgan and Delaney are by now familiar, but they continue to underpin the sometimes uncomfortable but always great comedy of Catastrophe.
There are other moments, too, that make this new season perhaps Catastrophe’s most compelling yet. Sharon’s visit to her OBGYN (the fabulously droll Tobias Menzies) leaves her reflecting on aging while her return to teaching has her celebrating the untimely death of a colleague. In one particularly humorous scene, Sharon manages to disastrously fuck up the memorial service and, yet again, use convenient political consciousness to attempt to ride the universe’s most awkward high horse.
It’s in these scenes that Sharon Horgan shines, both as co-writer and star. Since Horgan’s BBC show Pulling debuted over a decade ago, she’s built her career on writing and portraying fabulously funny and real women; characters who resist easy tropes of the television sitcom. Catastrophe’s Sharon is easily one of the most interesting women on television, simultaneously kind and brutal, smart and incredibly short-sighted, successful and flailing. Sharon is a delight to watch and Horgan inhabits her with an appealing confidence.
I spoke to Horgan about her fictional counterpart, the comedy of the awkward moment, and what it means for a woman to be “likable” on television. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: I wanted to ask about Catastrophe’s idiosyncratic brand of comedy. It very much relies on the comedy of the uncomfortable or awkward moment which parenthood and marriage seem very primed for. Could talk about how you approach that kind of comedy? It seems like it would be very easy to slide directly into the grim and stay there…
SHARON HORGAN: I think we do slide into the grim! But we always come back because each season we give ourself story lines that we have to figure out and pay off in the next season. So, they [Rob and Sharon] find themselves in increasingly difficult situations.
How it stays funny is that Rob [Delaney] and I are obsessed with the show being funny. You can kind of get caught up in dramatic storylines, they have their own sort of pleasures as a writer and performer, but we won’t let ourselves do it. There are a few moments in Season 3 that are heavier and we do let them play out but we try to undercut it all the way with cheap or expensive gags. We don’t really care!
We like to keep the show as real as possible, we don’t throw too much crap at [our characters]—we don’t want it to feel like an unbelievable shit storm—but in real life, people do lose their jobs and their homes, their parents become ill, or their marriage falls off the tracks. We found that we enjoyed talking about those things and that we had something to say about those things.
After Season 1, we found that’s what the audience liked, too. We thought, “We better keep doing this. People enjoy watching [Rob and Sharon] deal with shit.”
To follow up on the realism of the show: When I mentioned to a group of friends that I was going to interview you, so many of them said to me some version of, “I see myself in her character” or “I really relate to Sharon.” Is that something you hear a lot?
Yes, is the big answer to that question. I do hear that a lot, especially from women. It’s genuinely the best part of doing the show. I enjoy writing it, I quite like filming it, and I enjoy many aspects of the show. But when it actually goes out and people get in touch to say that they relate to the character Sharon—that she’s speaking for them or going through similar things or even the portrayal of a marriage where everything isn’t rosy or isn’t aspirational—I like that. I like that people look at Sharon and Rob and think, “Thank God, that’s what I’m going through and it’s okay.”
That’s the thing, that’s the reason that we feel the need to keep talking about stuff that maybe isn’t the easiest thing to make funny. People want to hear those stories but we’d hate ourselves if the show wasn’t funny.
There’s been a lot written about how you as both a writer and an actress consistently explore the “unlikable woman trope,” which, seems to me, to be television-critic-speak for women with a full range of emotions (in Season 2, Sharon has a nice line about earning the right to not have everyone like her). I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that chatter—that constant discussion of the “likability factor”—especially when it comes to writing Sharon?
I’m always surprised by that, by the way, that people find Sharon unlikable. But it’s true, we actually have to work harder at the Sharon character than we do with Rob because people are less forgiving when they see a female character fuck up or do something selfish or don’t do well at their job or do something that doesn’t put them in the best sort of mothering light. Male characters aren’t necessarily allowed to get away with everything but [being unlikable] is often considered adorable.
Like I said, we have to work harder with Sharon; in Season 3, she messes up and has that marital misdemeanor and we were very aware that a male character messing up would have a different response and a different reaction from the audience. Comedy is very helpful in that regard, people immediately forgive her because she said something very funny or very relatable. It’s tricky because I feel like the likability thing wouldn’t be an issue with a male character.
But you know what? It’s worth it! How boring would it be to play a stereotypical, one-dimensional character? I don’t want to play this stereotypical wife who rolls her eyes at the husband saying something stupid or being unreliable, who always have a word of wisdom. That’s boring to write and boring to play. So, it’s much more fun, although a little harder, to show her being flawed and messing up while, at the same time, stay on the right side of the audience.
One of the tensions that have played out through all three seasons, but is particularly present in Season 3, is the dynamic of the good mom and bad wife. There’s a really funny scene this season where Rob and Sharon are fighting and he says to her “You’re a great mom but you’re a terrible wife.”
It’s a collision of skills...
It’s interesting because while motherhood and wifehood are symbiotic relationships for many people, they’re relationships where there is a lot of tension, they often chafe against one another. In the traditional sitcom, there’s generally a collapse of the two relationships, but Catastrophe really resists that...
From my own personal perspective, I don’t feel like I really changed so much when I became a wife or a mother. It was important for me to stay me. That could be not good? That could be a flaw, I guess. I never felt like I fundamentally changed. What is interesting to me about the Sharon character is that from the moment you meet her, from when she’s single and Rob meets her in a bar to the end of Season Three, is that she’s the same person but has additional elements to her character now. But Sharon hasn’t changed.
Maybe some people can’t relate to that but the women who have reached out identified with that—it just seems, to me, to be representative of quite a lot of the population [laughs]. They’re the same person, they just had to learn a few extra skills.
What do you enjoy most about either playing or writing Sharon, this semi-autographical character?
If I’m honest, there’s an element of therapy, of figuring out stuff in my own life on the page. There’s also an element of addressing things that happened when I was younger that I get to deal with through the character. I just love her, I like stepping into those shoes. I think the Sharon character is brave and she says what she thinks and I like being that person for a bit.