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Monday, March 27, 2017

March 27, 2017: Televised Fools: Catastrophe

[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of recent comic TV shows. Share your thoughts on these or other televised foolishness, present or past, in comments!]
On three ways to contextualize Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s funny, raunchy Amazon original series about sex, relationships, and parenting.
1)      Narratives of Parenthood: A number of prominent recent film comedies, from Knocked Up (2007) to Juno (2007) to Baby Mama (2008), have used nonconventional pregnancies and unexpected possible parenthoods to challenge our collective narratives of those eternal human experiences. In some ways, the 2015 first season of Catastrophe—which begins when Delaney’s American businessman gets Horgan’s Irish schoolteacher pregnant during a brief fling while on a London trip, and chronicles the pair’s next steps after receiving that shocking news—echoes those edgy films. But because it allows the story to unfold over a half-dozen episodes, and because its second season was set some years later with the couple now parents to two children, Catastrophe is able to explore both pregnancy and parenting in far more graphic and realistic (extreme, perhaps, but realistic) detail than do those movies. As a result, I’d argue that the show offers narratives of those universal experiences that, in their combination of humor and realism, are pretty distinctive on the pop culture landscape.
2)      The Special Relationship: Catastrophe is certainly first and foremost focused on those themes of sex and family—but because Delaney’s character moves to England to live with Horgan’s at the start of the first season and they have remained there throughout the series to date, it also consistently features stories of the culture clash between this American expat, his Irish fiancée (and then wife), and their English friends and community. I’m far from an expert on British television (and as usual, additions and corrections very welcome in comments!), but I don’t know of too many shows that explore the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. through the lens of a romantic relationship in this way. As the characters are originally drawn, Delaney and Horgan are in many ways stereotypical representatives of their respective nations—and while Delaney has changed most obviously through his expatriation, I believe Horgan has likewise evolved through her relationship with and marriage to this very American man. Just another level of social realism subtly explored by this funny show.
3)      Streaming Series: Catastrophe is far from unique in being a show that is released all at once on a subscription site for instant streaming—each of my next two shows are produced in precisely the same way (Netflix in their cases, but the principle is of course the same). I’m sure there are Cultural and Media Studies dissertations being written on whether and how that form of production changes either the shows themselves or the audience experience of them, but without quite that much research I would say two things. First, it allows for a sitcom to function much more like a serialized drama—plotlines on Catrastrophe carry over across multiple episodes in a narrative form that feels quite distinct from the classic TV sitcom (which of course has itself evolved over the years). Second, it can sometimes be a problem when it comes to humor—at least for this viewer, binge-watching more than a few episodes of a comedy at a time can produce a feeling of repetition that dulls the edge of the humor somewhat. And no matter what your particular viewing experiences, Catastrophe proves on all these levels that television comedy is certainly distinct in 2017.
Next TV fooling tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other TV comedies you’d highlight?

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