Catastrophe, season four review – still superbly vicious, and a little more silly

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s comedy is spiky, beautifully confident, nimble, quick and exceedingly funny – but it’s right that this is the last series

The great skill of Catastrophe (Channel 4) has always been its unrivalled ability to show us brittle and spiky people, behaving mostly terribly, and then to make us feel deeply invested in their messy, fractured lives. Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney have wallowed in their brutally unsentimental fictional on-screen romance for four years now, and what a relief it is to have it back. It is as warmly vicious, and viciously warm, as it has always been, and its acid tone cuts through with as much originality as it did in 2015.

Brilliantly, Sharon is still called “Sharon London Sex” in Rob’s phone, even though they are now married with two kids. Season three ended with its usual disaster – the title isn’t for nothing – as Sharon dealt with the fallout from the student affair and Rob, off the wagon, drunk and distressed, crashed his car. We pick up the story, and the pieces, in court, as Rob lays out what could be called the extenuating circumstances of his crime, by throwing his wife under a bus. Her concern for his wellbeing is palpable. “A criminal in a neck brace. What a fucking catch,” she cracks.

Rob Delaney in Catastrophe.
‘A criminal in a neck brace’ … Rob Delaney in Catastrophe. Photograph: Ed Miller/Channel 4

Much of the humour, or despair, is found in the more mundane business of looking after the kids. Rob, busy with his job and his community service in a charity shop, has less time to spend with them, leaving Sharon with the brunt of the work. There is no saccharine familial loveliness here, unsurprisingly: a trip to a museum leads to her own “garden variety cry for help”, as Rob puts it, and there is a moment that is Kids Say the Funniest Things, if Kids Say the Funniest Things existed in hell. It treads similar ground to Motherland, the BBC2 comedy about frantic parenting in the wealthier parts of east London, on which Horgan also had a co-writing credit, but it is less panicked here, only drily ridiculous, and much better for it.

The always welcome Julie Hesmondhalgh joins the cast as hovering possible-arsonist Amanda, who first meets Rob at an AA meeting. Amanda is a mysterious manifestation of Rob’s conscience, inserting herself into his life at a rate that would warrant a restraining order, and she immediately raises Sharon’s suspicions: “I want you to stop farting your guilt on to some lady,” she tells her husband. Where Amanda’s interest in him will take us is anyone’s guess, though I suspect theirs won’t be a genuine and lasting friendship. Still, if it enables her to fire off more episode-stealing lines – after Rob has said he’s been listening to a lot of Radiohead, she replies, in an eerily soothing voice, “Try to get better, OK? Not wank off to your little man feelings” – then she will be a worthy addition to the story.

While Catastrophe has always been good at the big stuff – death, dementia, addiction, infidelity, all dusted off with bracing frankness – it is a pleasure to see it being more straightforwardly silly. The wider story of Rob and Sharon’s long-term relationship is treated with a relatively light touch, at least in the opening episode. They both have a tough time, though not much tougher than they have faced before. Rob has to navigate the aftermath of his no-longer-secret alcoholic relapse; Sharon has to learn to trust him again; they both have to figure out what it means when neither person works without the other. And they do. They deal with it, together and separately, and they plod along, as always, digging in just enough to make it work. Under the surface, questions of guilt and responsibility bubble away, but for now, it’s a hoot, nimble and quick, beautifully confident and very, very funny.

Horgan and Delaney confirmed last year that this would be the final series of Catastrophe. The push-pull of a turbulent relationship like Rob and Sharon’s could go on for ever, and with jokes as good as this, I’d watch them fall apart and reunite over and over, but perhaps it is the right time to call it a day, if only because it hasn’t yet begun to feel like it’s on repeat. I am already dreading the final episode, though, even from this fairly breezy opener. If one thing is certain, it won’t be pretty. They rarely soften an emotional blow. Then again, that’s what makes Catastrophe so appallingly likable.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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