Rob Delaney’s face is an exquisite and phenomenally crude string quartet consisting of his mouth, his chin, and his separately billed eyebrows. He furrows, he cringes, he puckers, he beams, he glowers. It’s like watching the bear emoji flawlessly impersonate all the other emoji. The best moment in Season 3 of Catastrophe, his fantastic and caustic BBC-Amazon romantic-comedy series with Sharon Horgan, is a wordless two-second throwaway reaction to a throwaway line, and as funny as any actual joke I’ve encountered on any screen this year.
At yet another excruciating dinner party, a woman is describing the fictitious plot of the next Woody Allen film — “Robert Duvall and Emma Watson play star-crossed lovers in Vienna” — and for a quick flash, the corners of Delaney’s lips symmetrically plunge into a sort of Revulsion Goatee. He stops chewing; he strikes the Mona Lisa of disgusted poses; he resumes chewing. The woman just keeps talking. It’s amazing. You could easily miss it. Please don’t. I’ve painstakingly rewound it about 15 times now; I would watch the Vine for hours.
Catastrophe premiered in 2015 as a black-licorice M&M, an anti-rom-com lovingly committed to its misanthropic sentimentality. It is You’re the Worst fused to Married With Children. Delaney and Horgan, as the costars, cowriters, and cocreators, play Rob and Sharon, an American ad exec and Irish schoolteacher, respectively, who meet in a London bar and have a weeklong one-night stand while he’s still in town. Their meet-cute, which occurs six seconds into the pilot, is required viewing, or rewatching. The fourth thing Rob says to Sharon is that he quit drinking “after I shit my pants at my sister’s wedding”; the sixth thing he says to her, after she initially declines his offer to buy her a drink, is, “Don’t make me fight a stranger.” Within a minute or so, they’re flopping ungracefully onto his hotel bed, Sharon’s back landing directly onto a slice of cold pizza. To defuse the awkwardness, Rob smashes the plate against the wall; “That was exciting,” she observes.
Anyway, she gets pregnant, and they get shotgun-married and make a stumbling go of it. Season 1 ends with Sharon going into labor; Season 2 leaps forward and starts with their son, now a toddler, interrupting Rob and a once-again pregnant Sharon midcoitus. Season 2 ends with the couple, now raising two young children, tentatively reconciling after an unsightly trial separation; the last image is Rob’s puckered face, preparing to confront Sharon about the Plan B receipt he just found. Season 3 starts literally a second later, with that confrontation.
This show is a full partnership and double-billed star vehicle, onscreen and off. Horgan is a cringe-romance visionary: She’d previously cocreated and starred in the equally gnarly BBC comedy Pulling, and is the mastermind behind the current polarizing HBO show Divorce. (She and Delaney are both happily married, with children, to other people.) But Delaney is the MVP of Catastrophe’s third season, its funniest and most affecting yet, in large part due to how thoroughly he is willing to debase himself. Rob says terrible things and makes terrible decisions, but does so with enough feral charisma that you’d still vote for him as Husband of the Year, if not quite Father of the Year. One of this indispensable show’s slyest unspoken arguments, in fact, is that it’s awfully hard to be both at the same time.
The occasional pizza toss aside, Catastrophe doesn’t rely much on slapstick, but Delaney’s facial gesticulations and line-readings are their own kind of sublime physical comedy. At one point this season, a contrite Sharon offers to sleep on the couch, or head-to-toe in one bed, and Rob’s response has a halting, stammering quality, like he’s carefully composing a viral tweet in real time: “No, I don’t want you to … lacerate my face with your … White Walker toenails.” The gigantic smile that blooms on Sharon’s face is the show’s immense appeal incarnate.
Delaney, notably, is an author and stand-up comedian who first rose to prominence as a viral Twitter personality: His account has nearly 1.5 million followers and mixes earnest liberal activism with phenomenal crudity. On the show, he is the walking manifestation of the Large Adult Sons meme, hulking and hirsute and harmless; when he walks into a “big & tall” modeling agency looking for a job, he announces himself as 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds. The receptionists just laugh at him. He looks like the Incredible Hulk version of Steve Carell. A major plot thread this season, in fact, is that Rob is both gaining weight (someone calls him “Fat Morrissey”) and falling off the wagon, challenges he faces with his usual mix of oafish charm and virtuosic command of profanity. His mid-argument blurt of “Fuck you for a second” is a neat way to suggest both the grizzly bear and, soon enough, the teddy bear.
Sharon, meanwhile, staggers through her own series of debacles, petulant and self-centered: “I got a promotion today, because somebody died,” she announces, radiant. Another major thesis statement here is that the best marriages might be both impenetrable and, more to the point, unbearable to the outside world: A good many of the ancillary characters on Catastrophe end up despising Rob and Sharon for one excellent reason or another. “I’ll kick a cupcake up your pussy!” a very kindly old man ends up snarling at Rob; glancing incredulously at his wife, Rob’s response is, “Why are you looking at me?”
The oft-unhappy couple’s children rarely appear onscreen and hardly make a peep. Catastrophe suggests that when it comes to kids, it’s tough to keep your own head together, let alone your marriage. (For harried new moms and dads, one of the show’s biggest selling points is that each episode is just 20-odd minutes long, with just six to a season. More time to sleep.) Each new batch is sprinkled with just a few deft, surprisingly affecting touches of familial melodrama: Another, far weightier scene from earlier in the series that I replay a lot is Sharon’s brief, sincerely lovely moment in an airport taxi line shortly after a medical scare. Rob gets a few moments that hit that hard this time, doing just the right amount of capital-A Acting in a season that delves into infidelity, alcohol dependence, acute economic anxiety, and death.
They’ll survive, and it’s heartening to watch them survive. Delaney is, in real life, self-deprecating to the point of absurdity; many of the onscreen Rob’s least appealing qualities are pulled from the offscreen Rob’s real life. His recent Reddit AMA includes the question “What happened to your hot bod,” delves into the 2002 car crash that marked the end of his own history with alcohol, and references his running Twitter joke about his wife sleeping with his karate instructor. There are times on Catastrophe when it feels like he’s reading his filthiest thoughts directly off his phone, when what he’s doing doesn’t even seem like lowercase-A acting. But he’s even better at this in Season 3, affable and addled, with the gravity to handle a scene where he helps carry a coffin and the goofiness to turn it into a joke about how much taller he is than everyone else. He is a TV role model for people who know better than to find their role models on TV.
Rob’s rapport with Sharon, and Delaney’s with Horgan, is astounding, how perfectly imperfect they are together, laughing at their cruelest jokes at the other’s expense. (That amused-by-your-own-script trick never worked on, say, Entourage, but it’s totally logical that these people would find each other as funny as we do.) You root for them even as you pray that you never actually meet them. You laugh at jokes with punch lines like “I don’t care about Chinese people,” the people onscreen happy to absorb any shame you might be feeling on your couch.
Catastrophe’s theme music is a loopy, synthesizer-driven instrumental with some whistling and yodeling thrown in, evoking Raising Arizona and capping off each episode with, generally speaking, a particularly humiliating or upsetting plot development. Which itself evokes the eminently meme-worthy Curb Your Enthusiasm: You hear the song and you can’t help but cringe. It is to Horgan’s and, this time around, especially Delaney’s credit that their darkest moments leave you weirdly inspired and uplifted instead. They are often terrible parents and/or spouses and/or people, but they are trying so hard, and failing so spectacularly, that you can’t help but love to love them. “My family is my Syria,” Rob tells a flabbergasted friend at one point, spooling out a patently offensive extended metaphor for how his wife and kids have ruined him, and given him the only thing he has to live for. He is, very often, the worst. That’s what makes him the best.