There are TV writers who dream up worlds and relationships viewers desperately want to believe exist when they’re lost and lonely and crying into a tub of ice cream on yet another Saturday night. They are the feel-good medicine wo(men) of the TV industry: the Amy Shermans and Daniel Palladinos, injecting us with sweet doses of delusional romance and sparkling hope.
And then there are writers like Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who confront us with harsh, tough-love realities so potent they snap us out of our Disney-sponsored sense of romantic entitlement and make us realize that, at the end of the day, love isn’t about grand gestures and eye-gazing at sunset. It’s putting up with your partner’s warped personality, overbearing family, poor hygiene and bad jokes, still choosing to go to bed with them at night and doing the whole thing again the next day—and as monotonously bad as it may sound, as infuriating and suffocating as it is, at times, it’s also pretty damn neat. Being able to discuss your saggy tits or the contents of your latest bowel movement doesn’t necessarily scream “sexy” at first, but just you wait—Horgan and Delaney’s Catastrophe will turn you on to the real meaning of sweet talk.
Since the start of her career, Horgan has embraced writing and portraying female characters as complex and, at times, as unlikable, as the army of difficult men on screen. She’s well aware that her character in Catastrophe, Sharon Morris, is the rare example of a sardonically neurotic, blunt and incredibly self-absorbed female TV character, and is quick to admit caution when going over the final scripts. I asked her about the “nice pass” and “asshole pass” system she and Delaney developed to ensure that, beneath Sharon’s flaws, she would still be engaging to audiences—once the scripts are completed, they go over them again and add a few more niceties for Sharon, a few dickhead moves for Rob. With Season Three of Catastrophe getting into the details of Sharon’s quasi-infidelity last season, it was even more important to Horgan and Delaney to fine-comb the script with a “nice pass.”
“We didn’t want audiences harboring any kind of resentment towards her in the first episode—or for the rest of the season,” Horgan tells Paste, after closing her window on the “world’s loudest leaf-blower.” “She’s made a mistake, there’s no two ways about it, but it was really a sad thing rather than a bad thing. No one came out of it any better off. We had to make sure that people really understood that she messed up and she knew it, and, at the same time, for audiences to be aware that Rob messed up in a completely different way, but isn’t being truthful about it. So I think her honesty gained her some sympathy points.”
Horgan’s character has seemingly been a hard-ass from the get-go, but as Catastrophe’s new season progresses, she begins to soften around her sharp, witty edges. Always one to downplay emotional moments with the right amount of foul language and stroppiness, Sharon tends to keep those around her at arm’s length, careful not to reveal too many of her feelings about her father’s (Gary Lilburn) dementia, her son’s (Sonny & Dexter Hyman) premature birth and the loneliness of motherhood. In Season Three, by contrast, she vocalizes and expresses her vulnerability in ways she hasn’t done before.
“I’m glad you said that, because people are definitely less forgiving of a harder female character,” Horgan says. “People seem to forgive male characters a lot easier; they expect more from a female character and are less likely to respond to a selfish female, especially a mother who makes some selfish choices, or isn’t always the most natural mother, for example.”
With the character’s husband, Rob (played by Delany), having fallen off the wagon, following a particularly rough period at work and in their marriage, it could have been easy to go full-on Team Rob. But given Sharon’s own circumstances, and how she attempts to deal with them, it’s even easier to relate to her guilt and her fear as she watches the visible cracks in her life’s foundations become bigger by the day.
“She knows she’s still got a lot of ground to cover in terms of getting the equilibrium back,” Horgan says. “But, also, little things happen along the way—like her suddenly becoming aware of the fact that she’s getting older and that, you know, she’s bereft of eggs. And then there’s the family—you just expect them to always be there. I don’t think she’s a character who is in constant contact, but her family is important to her and now her brother leaves to Spain and her Dad is ill. I think all of that fed into her feeling a little more vulnerable.”
When Horgan spoke at the Standard Issue event in London’s Leicester Theatre alongside Sarah Millican, Sandi Toksvig and Claudia Winkleman earlier this year, her response to one question in particular pretty much summed up why she’s such an inspiration to so many women out there. When asked how she feels about the aging process, she was the only one who didn’t have anything uplifting to offer, other than the fact that she gives less of a shit these days: “I just hate everything about it,” she said. “I’m scared of death, so I’m getting closer to death all the time, every day—that’s shit. And I don’t enjoy when things get saggier and decay—just decay.”
Hers may not be the most empowering response, but it’s truthful—people just don’t like to talk about it. Why would the topic of aging merit an uplifting response when the mere mention of the phenomenon causes faces to droop more than we fear our boobs ever will? As in her work, be it the family setting of Catastrophe or the crumbling version thereof on HBO’s Divorce, Horgan doesn’t see the sense in sugarcoating common fears and insecurities.
“I don’t get therapy; I write scripts. I deal with it through my alter-ego that is Sharon Morris,” she laughs. “It’s nice to be honest about that, because I certainly think there are women out there who feel the same way, and the character of Sharon seems to chime with a lot of women because she does say how she’s really feeling. So I guess that means we’re all a little bit bleaker than the public face we put on.”
There’s a clear, albeit unintentional, pattern to much of her TV work: Pulling (2006) was all about three single London ladies taking full advantage of their independence; Catastrophe hilariously explores the ins and outs of marriage and family life; and Divorce—well, the name speaks for itself. Might she consider writing about the pensioner’s experience twenty years from now?
“I don’t know if I look that far in advance,” she says. “I want to write about the menopause but I want to wait around until I’m actually experiencing it before I do that. But I feel that’s in my pocket, that’s something I know I want to write about at some point and that’ll be interesting! Rob and I have talked about jumping forward with Catastrophe at some point in the future and seeing where they’re at as a couple who are much, much further into their marriage. I’m making a series for the BBC at the moment called Motherland, which is very much about mothers—mothers who pretty much just mother, who aren’t working mothers—”
“Mombies?” I interject, remembering a term she coined for such mothers in Season Two of Catastrophe.
“Mombies! Yeah, I mean, we couldn’t make them all mombies because that would not have been very fucking interesting to watch or listen to, but that’s a very specific kind of world and interaction,” Horgan says, laughing. “That came about because of the people I’d been working with, and I’d been wanting to write about motherhood for years—I mean, people who find motherhood difficult. Obviously, I ended up doing it with Sharon in Catastrophe, but something that’s specifically focused on that felt like an interesting angle.”
Our time is cut short—Sharon’s got a lot on her plate, what with promoting Catastrophe, shooting the new film Game Night (in which she stars alongside Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), and Divorce coming back in the fall. But I manage to get in one more question: How does she feel about her daughters watching her shows, and understanding these authentic perspectives on relationships?
“I haven’t thought about that,” she says. “Catastrophe, at the end of the day, is a love story, and I think, despite everything, there’s quite a loving message in there—and certainly by Season Three it’s about realizing that they’re going to stay together no matter what, they don’t really operate on their own anymore. I would be happy for them to watch it and take whatever message there is in that.”
If only we all had the chance to grow up watching the type of work that shapes a realistic understanding of the beautiful catastrophe that is love, in all its twisted glory.
Season Three of Catastrophe premieres Friday, April 28 on Amazon Prime.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.