It’s a cliché to say you don’t want something great to end. When it comes to TV shows, more often than not it isn’t even true: By the time a series gets around to wrapping itself up, it’s usually well past the point of diminishing returns; more recently, the overwhelming volume of series has made brevity a virtue in itself. But watching the fourth and final season of Catastrophe, Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s look at the indignities and intimacies of long-term partnership, I found myself not only wishing, but believing the show could go on in perpetuity. It’s the strongest endorsement of Catastrophe I can think of. Catastrophe’s central subject is a not particularly special marriage between two not particularly special people. Yet its co-creators, -stars, and -writers have imbued their story with such humor and specificity I sincerely believe they could extend it for the rest of their protagonists’ natural lives. They won’t, but that belief is what makes the farewell so bittersweet.
Rob Norris and Sharon Morris, Delaney and Horgan’s on-screen counterparts, have been through some shit. The first season, broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon Prime in the United States, was a prelude of sorts: An American advertising man and an Irish schoolteacher meet at a bar in London, fuck each other’s brains out for a week, and decide to make a go of it after Sharon realizes she’s pregnant. (In one of the series’ signature filthy-sweet gags, Rob keeps Sharon saved in his contacts as “Sharon London Sex” long after she’s become a great deal more.) The meet-cute crescendos in a cliffhanger that turns into a fake-out. In the wake of their shotgun wedding, the couple gets in their first knock-down, drag-out fight; suddenly, Sharon’s water breaks. We never see what happens next. Instead, Season 2 picks up with Rob and Sharon mid-coitus, Sharon deeply pregnant once more, and their firstborn a toddler old enough to walk in on them.
The abrupt transition from crisis to farce is Catastrophe’s thesis in a nutshell. A relationship, let alone a marriage, isn’t defined by the highlight reels that make up most romantic comedies, but the frightening, reassuring fact that you’re still stuck with your partner after the dust settles or the high wears off. Catastrophe is a 24-episode, 12-hour elaboration on the adage “this too shall pass,” a truism with the power to trouble the contented and soothe the troubled. Since Rob and Sharon’s first encounter, a great deal has passed. Rob got sexually harassed, and accused of sexual harassment, at work. Sharon made out, and nearly did more, with another man. Then she lost her father. Rob relapsed into alcoholism. In the final scene of Season 3, he gets into a car accident and informs Sharon he won’t pass the Breathalyzer. True to form, Season 4 opens with the mundane consequences of that heart-stopping moment: Rob and Sharon at his court date, with Rob in a neck brace.
Catastrophe premiered as part of a wave of TV shows adapting the rom-com to a longer format. Some, like FX’s Married or ABC’s Selfie, fizzled early. Others, like HBO’s Togetherness or FX’s You’re the Worst, also currently airing its final volume, survived to maturity. On the eve of its final chapter, though, Catastrophe has emerged as the best, savviest, and, hopefully, most enduring example of this now-faded trend. It’s certainly the one that’s best capitalized on television’s ability to tell a longer, richer story than the lead-up to a happily ever after. More than that, Delaney and Horgan made this extension the entire point of their series, keeping the chemistry and banter between the leads while adding the tests and triumphs that turn a connection into a bond. It’s Four Weddings and a Funeral reimagined as A Wedding, A Couple Funerals, Some Arguments, and a Whole Lot of Financial Strain.
The final season finds Rob and Sharon in a relatively good place. Having ridden out the storm of their respective indiscretions, they’ve settled into the role of happy co-conspirators. Episodes are peppered with knowing glances and fleeting handshakes, brief moments of camaraderie that reinforce the sense of Rob and Sharon against the world, or at least their messy in-laws. Many of the show’s most important and revelatory scenes take place while Rob and Sharon are getting ready before bed, using their precious alone time to debrief and unload and occasionally, halfheartedly cop a feel. Catastrophe’s demonstrations of love tend to be a lot more moving than its declarations. “Here’s how I feel about sex with you these days: On paper, it sounds amazing. But if you were to initiate it, like tonight, I’d just be angry,” goes a representative one from Rob. “But I still have a fond feeling when I look at you. Maybe that’s enough?”
Within such stability, Catastrophe’s conflicts pivot away from the existential question of whether its central union will survive and toward the episodic. Rob recommits a little too hard to sober living; Sharon struggles with her mother moving on; each of them navigates changes at work. The absence of a larger, unifying plot risks feeling aimless or scattershot. Instead, it’s Catastrophe’s ultimate proof of concept, right before the show wraps up for good. After all, life is a collection of random moments and conflicting feelings strung together by the relentless march of time. One second, Sharon’s asking when her existence will stop feeling like such a slog; the next, she and Rob are giggling about nipple clamps. Catastrophe just makes its relentless march amusing and insightful enough you’d happily spend it with these people, and believe they’d spend it with each other.
For some of the angst Rob and Sharon have largely worked through, Delaney and Horgan turn to their supporting cast. Catastrophe’s closing episodes become an opportunity to appreciate just how well this self-made star vehicle has cultivated its bench. Fran (Ashley Jensen), an unhappy momager, and Chris (Mark Bonnar), a casual sociopath, have evolved from Rob and Sharon’s foils to their genuine friends, with a relationship drama all their own. (Jensen still delivers when called upon to inject some comic relief via slapstick; the face she makes while jumping rope in the background of a Sharon scene will haunt me for weeks.) Dave (Daniel Lapaine), Rob’s fellow expat and recovering addict, has replaced substances with survivalism as a more new-dad-appropriate obsession. Catastrophe is both a frequently vicious show and, by necessity, a streamlined one. Yet the depths it’s gradually, sneakily unlocked in its marginal players demonstrate the show’s softer side, balanced with deceptive ease against its mean streak.
Even in its home stretch, Catastrophe is able to extend this approach to new faces. Chris Noth and Nat Faxon appear as a new horrible pharma executive at Rob’s cartoonishly evil employer and an interloper in his family life, respectively; Michaela Watkins carries more emotional weight as his sister, though she gets enough freak-outs to flex her comic chops. The late Carrie Fisher, who played Rob’s mother, gets a fitting send-off. But this is, and always has been, Rob and Sharon’s show, and ends, as it must, with the two of them alone. At the close, Catastrophe is neither unrelentingly bleak nor falsely cheery about the nature of relationships. It’s a show that makes drudgery sound romantic (“Having kids is like strapping yourself to a Formula One race car: Boom, your life is over. But not in a bad way!”) and romance like a mess (“If I met you right now, I’d still want to fuck you for a week, and get you pregnant, and marry you, and fuck things up from there”). For its final line, though, Catastrophe strips itself down to something as simple as the preceding story is chaotic. Sharon goes skinny-dipping at the beach; Rob, despite some initial resistance, dives in after her. “I just didn’t like seeing you adrift out there on your own,” he explains.