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29 October 2015

Smug marrieds: has Sharon Horgan’s and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe lost its edge?

To make a pearl, you need grit and I am wondering where that little bit of necessary sand is going to come from this time around.

By Rachel Cooke

OK, I’m just going to whisper this and then I’ll run away: I think that Catastrophe (Tuesdays, 10pm), Sharon Horgan’s and Rob Delaney’s previously magnificent wonky relationship sitcom, might be in danger of becoming a little bit smug. The first series began with a one-night stand that quite rapidly turned into something altogether more, to be blunt, sticky. The second, for which we have all been waiting so impatiently, involves a time jump – and we are talking years, not weeks.

Sharon (an Irish, determined teacher at an inner-London school) and Rob (an American, inept advertising executive) have two children now: Frankie, the boy to whom she was about to give birth prematurely at the end of the first series, and a baby girl with an Irish name that no one can pronounce. They are also (briefly) in possession of a rescue dog that goes by the ultra-cute name of Mabel.

To accommodate this tick-box family, Sharon and Rob have moved out of her cramped flat and into – oh, my eyes, what’s this? – a huge and painfully desirable Victorian terrace with Farrow & Ball paintwork and the kind of kitchen that I fantasise about while staring at late at night. Yes, Rob might still be kind of rubbish at his irredeemably shallow job but not so rubbish that he hasn’t been able to bag them a mortgage on a £2m house.

As Sharon’s old flatmate Melissa (Sarah Niles) pointed out at a party celebrating the new baby’s arrival (there were pink helium balloons and everything), it’s a far cry from the days when they shared “a bedroom and a dildo above Chicken Cottage”. At this rate, the awful Fran (Ashley Jensen) is going to be redundant as a character. Now that her friends’ home is lovelier than hers, she’ll have nowhere to put her scorn but her Mulberry bag. Perhaps this is why she hasn’t yet appeared.

To make a pearl, you need grit and I am wondering where that little bit of necessary sand is going to come from this time around. “You live on a cream puff!” yelled Rob at Sharon, as she lay in bed eating ice cream out of a mug, picking fights with him. It was a line that rather fell flat, given that she really does live on a cream puff now. I want her life and I bet you do, too. It’s just adorable. She and he are gorgeous and funny and rich and still amazingly keen to have sex with each other.

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Their children are sweet. Their families are loving, sticking around even when Sharon comes over all post-partum and calls her mother-in-law (Carrie Fisher, with a face that does not move . . . at all) a haemorrhoid. Ditto their friends, for all that Chris (Mark Bonnar) is still such a class-A weirdo (oh, that my weirdo friends were so quotable) and Dave (Daniel Lapaine) is still such a massive show-off (oh, that my show-off friends would turn up with specially commissioned cakes for me: even a cake featuring an image of my swollen breasts).

What made the first series of Catastrophe such a hit was that it all seemed so provisional. I don’t mean the writing; I’m sure that Horgan and Delaney sweated every word. I mean the set-up. It was built on a kind of frantic contingency and was underpinned with hope. However lavatorial the gags, it had an old-fashioned sweetness that seemed almost to belong to another age (I am thinking, I suppose, of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, to whom Delaney bears a passing resemblance). Here, it seemed to say, is life: it’s often crap but it is also, if you’re lucky, lovely. Just because you’re muddling through – just because your twenties and thirties have failed to deliver a private life that is even halfway to being perfect – it doesn’t mean that there won’t be happiness, even love. If it had a message, it was that you don’t need a range cooker in your kitchen and a Bugaboo pushchair in your hall to be content, fulfilled.

But what now? We’ve already seen Sharon’s and Rob’s cooker, which is big and shiny. The aspirational baby buggy can’t be far away. I fear that its all-terrain wheels may prove to be the enemy of all that was best about this show; though I hope to God that I’m wrong.

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This article appears in the 28 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?