How Does “Catastrophe” Subvert the Romantic Comedy Tropes?


Amazon Prime Video’s Catastrophe (2015) succeeds as a romantic comedy in spite of the fact that it is a romantic comedy. The import from Channel 4 in the UK takes advantage of every opportunity to subvert the common romantic comedy tropes. The series starts with a standard meet-cute (or should it be called a meet-sexy?) in a bar, but it quickly escalates to a one-night stand that lasts for a week. Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) have instant chemistry and amazing sex. Rob returns to Boston and intends to stay there until Sharon calls and tells him she is pregnant, thereby setting up the core conflict of the series. This conflict accelerates the relationship in an unexpected but believable way when Rob picks up and moves to London.

This is not a rom-com in which the couple uses bickering as foreplay or disguises their growing feelings for each other with platonic friendship. Sharon and Rob’s relationship starts with sex, and the sex is a powerful force in their dynamic, but it’s mostly a manifestation of their feelings. Their physical intimacy mirrors their growing, deep emotional intimacy. The relationship fast-forwards out of necessity due to the pregnancy, but meanwhile a real connection between Rob and Sharon is apparent. In a brief time, the show brings us past the point where many romantic comedies end.

For an example of Catastrophe’s unconventional approach, look to a scene in the pilot when, early in the pregnancy, Sharon is given a scary “pre-cancer” diagnosis by a tone-deaf doctor. The scene is representative of Catastrophe‘s dynamic, which feels real and authentic without losing comedic or romantic edge. We’ve seen plenty of scenes with pregnant couples in the gynecologist’s office, but this one is different. First, the scene focuses more on Sharon’s diagnosis than her pregnancy. She is predictably scared and upset, but Rob, instead of just being scared and upset, is protective and reassuring. This man she has only recently met, despite the circumstances, is all-in with Sharon in a real and honest way. The other outstanding thing about the “pre-cancer” scene is that the writers play it for straight up-comedy. One of the most honest reactions to bad news is to make a joke of it—to go for the laughs to lighten the mood. Catastrophe does that to full effect here, despite the latent rom-com clichés available in the situation that would pull at the audience’s heartstrings while pushing the show into sappy or sentimental territory.

Heartstrings are still pulled, but by a genuine emotion and not a manufactured greeting-card trope. Catastrophe is a different kind of rom-com, by design. Sharon sums it up perfectly: “Courtship is supposed to be a dance. Ours is more like a heart attack or a seizure.”