“Catastrophe,” a bittersweet British television comedy making its U.S. debut on Amazon Prime, is the product of an unlikely artistic union. One of its creators, Sharon Horgan, is a veteran sitcom writer and star who could be fairly called the Tina Fey of British TV, in stature if not style. The other, Rob Delaney, is a U.S. comedian best known for having more than a million Twitter followers; he’s headlining a TV show for the first time.
And as it happens, “Catastrophe,” whose six-episode first season went online last week, is about an even less likely (fictional) marriage. Rob (Delaney), an American adman and recovering alcoholic, meets Sharon (Horgan), a British schoolteacher, during a six-day business trip to London. First comes lust – “I’ve never had casual sex with a sober person before,” she tells him as they barge into his hotel room – then an unexpected pregnancy, followed by Rob’s return to London and his awkward but sincere insistence on doing the right thing.
That setup allows the show, originally made for the British network Channel 4, to straddle genres – it’s a romantic comedy, in which Sharon and Rob spar like prizefighters but must fall in love in time for the marriage, and it’s a fish-out-of-water comedy, in which Rob encounters a series of British eccentrics and worse. (Sharon appears to be the only reasonably normal person in London.)
Horgan made her name with the savagely funny BBC series “Pulling” (2006-09), which was like “Catastrophe” in reverse – she played a woman who left her fiancé at the altar and moved in with her best friends. The new show, written by Horgan and Delaney, has some of the foul-mouthed frankness of “Pulling” but lacks that show’s unabated raucousness.
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It’s quieter and smoother, with an HBO-style gloss, and it spends a surprising amount of time on the sincere-sentimental side of the rom-com equation. It sometimes feels like a darker, more brittle take on James Corden and Ruth Jones’ sweetly corny “Gavin & Stacey,” another British comedy about an improbable match and the countdown to a wedding.
Delaney and Horgan, as writers and actors, are able to make most of the serious moments believable and bearable, even touching (though the twist ending of the season finale feels like a miscalculation). And while the show’s humor, alternately subtle and pummeling, doesn’t always click, each episode has its moments. (Such as when Rob, who has taken a crisis-management job with a pharmaceutical firm, points out optimistically that the company’s new drug primarily killed old men, “the least missed demographic.”)
Helping matters considerably is the supporting cast that plays all those British oddballs, including Ashley Jensen (“Ugly Betty”) as Fran, a horrifyingly self-centered friend of Sharon’s, and Mark Bonnar as Fran’s husband, Chris, who escapes his marriage by secretly hanging out with Rob, an arrangement they both refer to as dating.
“Catastrophe” has a couple of different comic styles – a dry British realism and a more showy American jokiness, exemplified by Rob’s habit of talking like a stand-up comedian trying out material – that it doesn’t always meld successfully. But it’s more important that Horgan and Delaney appear comfortable with each other on screen, and by and large they make us care about Sharon and Rob’s far-fetched romance.