There are little comedies slipping through the cracks. It’s easy to miss them, because there are so many outlets for “content” right now, with Net-flix, Amazon, and Hulu bringing more to the table already built by the likes of IFC, FX, and Comedy Central.
And maybe these small series are better off not having to bear the weight of popularity and the high expectations that can trigger. These are not the sitcoms that super-serious mainstream recappers scrutinize like miners digging for gold, finding universal, generational, maternal, regional, and controversial meanings in the unfolding text that is “New Girl.” They’re just hanging out there on their own, light-hearted niche shows with charm to spare.
“Moone Boy” is one, a Hulu coming-of-age story set in Ireland that’s warm and lovely, with the kinds of sweetly funny moments and characters we’ve seen in indie movies like “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine.” “You’re the Worst,” FXX’s anti-romantic romantic comedy about a pair of tangled misanthropes, and “Togetherness,” HBO’s portrait of 30-somethings rethinking their choices, are two others. Usually, these shows are categorized as “alternative” or “offbeat,” and indeed they are both.
Right now, I’m thinking about “Catastrophe,” an Amazon streaming series that dropped last month, after a winter run in England. It’s a really likable romantic comedy that takes a lot of familiar material and smartens it up, gives it intimacy; it dodges all of the TV-ized clichés that can turn scripted love into a Ping -Pong game of witticisms and snark. Written by its stars, Irish actress Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who’s originally from the Boston area, “Catastrophe” never feels like a product so much as a lovingly and carefully crafted project. At only six half-hour episodes, it leaves you wanting more.
The story is simple, with pieces of “Knocked Up” in the mix. Horgan plays an Irish schoolteacher named Sharon, Delaney plays a Boston ad man named Rob, and they find each other in London while’s he’s there on business. They have a six-day sex-filled fling, and a few weeks later, when he’s back in Boston, she calls him to tell him she’s pregnant. Now in her early 40s, she wants to keep the baby. He returns to London and decides to stay and help, and so Rob and Sharon proceed to get to know each other while going through the process of going to doctor’s appointments and meeting difficult family members and friends. That’s it — the concept is straightforward, and commonplace.
But everything else about “Catastrophe” has a fresh twist. Horgan and Delaney are confident enough, and talented enough, to take an overused trope and put their distinctive mark on it. For one thing, Rob and Sharon really do like each other. They have a few tough moments, because the show has a foot in realism, but they aren’t making their relationship work only in anticipation of the baby. The actors have natural chemistry together, and so the characters do, too, most appealingly their shared sense of sarcasm. Rob and Sharon laugh together on a regular basis. And they don’t play cutesy games to manipulate the other. They’re adults. I’d watch a show made up solely of them falling in love, teasing and protecting each other, all without schmaltzy resolutions or overly precious routines. I quickly cared about them, which is always an essential factor when it comes to investing in a TV show.
Delaney, who gained fans through his sometimes gonzo Twitter feed, is really solid here, and sweeter than his feed might suggest. I was afraid his character would be a series of Twitter-like quips, but the “Catastrophe” scripts have the characters saying amusing things that people might actually say. Rob is a big bear of a guy who is laid back and affectionate. Like Delaney, who has detailed his alcohol problems online and in his book “Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage,” Rob is sober and done with his crazy years. But he’s still open to more growth, which is why he’s taking the challenge presented to him. He’s taking a next step in life, as is Sharon.
Sharon is more hyped up and barbed than Rob, but her edginess always resolves to good humor. When Rob says he’s surprised that she’s pregnant, her response is perfect: “What? That repeated sexual intercourse between two healthy adults will do the exact thing it’s supposed to do?” Horgan, who has quickly become one of my favorites with her expert Emma Thompson-like timing, nails this line and many others.
Delaney and Horgan are surrounded by a strong supporting cast, all of whom are funny without forcing it — there are no catchphrases or nosy neighbors afoot. Ashley Jensen, so dear as the best friend on “Extras,” is a perfect monster on “Catastrophe,” as Sharon’s homeopath frenemy who improves her self-image by enjoying others’ disappointments. As a cool, tactless obstetrician, Tobias Menzies (“Outlander”) is effective as one of the nightmares that pushes Rob and Sharon closer together. He uses his hand sanitizer as a kind of dismissive gesture. And Carrie Fisher is on board as Rob’s mother, who desperately doesn’t want her son to marry this stranger in London. In her few scenes on the phone with her son and, later, with Sharon, Fisher kills it.
The pleasures of “Catastrophe” are low-key, and its charm is quiet. Did I oversell? I hope not.