“You’re pregnant and I’m not.”
It’s an instructional, feminist line uttered by Rob on Catastrophe, the British sitcom streaming on Amazon Prime following two 40-somethings–American businessman Rob and London primary teacher Sharon–who, after a rom-com trope Chance Meeting At the Bar, turns into an equally predictable one-night stand, which in turn becomes a one-week affair, that results in a pregnancy–something that Rob learns once he’s back home in Boston, weeks removed from his tryst in London, over the phone from a bewildered Sharon. Their phone exchange is as brief their encounter and within 10mins of the first episode, Rob is already heading back to London to sort things out with Sharon.
While that’s all entirely predictable, the show itself constantly skewers the ingrained predictability around not only pregnancy, but gender roles, traditional family values, and relationships. That it covers this terrain isn’t surprising; that it does so in six episodes (the whole of its only season, though it’s already been renewed for a second) is a great commentary on the fact that in real life, the trajectory of two people’s lives can change in a matter of minutes. Over the course of season 1, the now common culture of binge-watching a show like Catastrophe closes the distance between the audience and the actors; in three hours you’ll feel as whirlwind-whipped as Rob and Sharon do with all the choices, mistakes, revelations, misgivings, tenderness, regrets, secrets and sadness that they go through.
Instead of feeling that the show is entirely about the pregnancy, the core question for the couple isn’t “will they or won’t they?” in terms of the pregnancy (no real spoiler alert here: they’re going through with it) but a realer positioning of the questions of “will they or won’t they make it?” which, like in real life, is the question most of us are asking about our friends, relatives, co-workers and ourselves relationships outside the light of decorum.
But you’re also left musing about the potency of the traditional dialogue around relationships and gender. As Rob and Sharon navigate what often looks like a physically and emotionally perilous pregnancy, you see them also deal with all the things that come with being a couple and the scrutiny in which we evaluate, and societally limit, people’s choice. Rob and Sharon have to deal with everything presumably inevitable about the pregnancy in the reverse; issues of co-habitation, mingling friends and families, un-entangling themselves from exes, and whether or not to get married all happen because of the pregnancy instead of, as we’re still often informed is the Right Way To Go, building towards it. Nearly every episode litters scenes with this message; Sharon literally spends everyday harried and hounding after students as a teacher; the couple’s social world is increasingly hemmed in by couples who are dealing with parenthood at different stages or different ways and at their core the question that hangs for all of them–from Rob’s horny, determinedly single friend Dave, to Fran and Fergal Sharon’s couple friends, or even Carrie Fisher as Rob’s weary, protective mother, to Rob and Sharon themselves–is “…so what happens now?”.
You’re reminded ultimately of the fact that no matter what happens when a couple confronts pregnancy, planned or not, wanted or unwanted, full steam ahead or abort the mission at all costs, the decisions, the choices, are never neither easy nor a given, and it’s what ultimately lends Catastrophe to being an apt title for the show–it’s not about the accidental pregnancy so much as the accidental way all of us make our way through adulthood. Everyone knows that we’re making it up as we go along, and that really, a catastrophe could be waiting around any corner.
You feel emboldened and uneasily hopeful for Rob and Sharon for everything that they say and share (graphically, comically, romantically and intimately) in such a short time together as the show makes you uneasily aware of how easy and paradoxical it is that in conventional relationships, so often adults harbor desires, haunts, agendas and regrets that never get surfaced directly, but instead voiced via advice to distressed wayward friends over coffee, at dinner parties, over drinks in a dizzying array–single friends who will sometimes tell you “do” at any moment of opportunity to escape single-dom that they otherwise posture relishing or being complacent in; coupled friends who tell you “don’t” while also judging you for doing just that. On Catastrophe, you can almost hear characters on both sides of the marital aisle using Rob’s line as justification for their stances and unsolicited worldview, that everyone knows better than them, for them (and so, than and for, you), and so best to heed their view because, after all: “You’re pregnant and I’m not.”
Adulthood, life’s greatest pick-a-path adventure, is life’s longest lesson on the fact that despite our best efforts, no one’s ever really a villain nor a hero. It would be great if life played out in small, episodic inconveniences like traditional TV shows, where the choice and the pain are finite, and the reward is merely getting through it in 20-30mins before being able to move on. We often still want to view life as a series of chapters–concrete, explicit sections of a wider, coherent narrative–when it’s really more akin to short stories; a hodge-podge of disparate adventures with little sinew between them that we constantly want to mine for connective, greater meaning. It’s the stuff of not only religion, but the medicine that religion can also helpfully ward off against: mortality.
Watching Catastrophe during the current times makes for a fascinating, uneasy watch at times. While Rob and Sharon briskly move through the decision to forge ahead with their pregnancy, you get the impression that both have already calculated (and the show does show them discuss, to a degree) what it would mean to have an abortion. It never appears out-of-the-question for them–their resources, intelligence and worldliness seem to suggest they’re aware of that being a decision if they choose to–the show does mark itself against a time here in the U.S. where powerful people are attempting to remove that choice from couples, yes, but most importantly from women and their bodies.
The GOP’s assault on Planned Parenthood–the push here to freeze governmental funding towards the renowned women’s health organization–is merely the latest in a string of attempts to cage, control and cajole people into believing there’s an inevitable, traditional, correct way to live. It’s a damaging stance not only for the obvious constrictive reasons to disregard a woman’s mind, intelligence, heart and desire and body (Sharon, like many of the real-world women that I know, wouldn’t and shouldn’t stand for a man to grant permission to do anything), it’s also a moronic and ironic stance for a country founded on the idea of escaping imperial reign, design and limitations. Like many policies–those against the brown, the poor, the middle-class or the non-heterosexual–it’s sole intent seems to be to not only limit rights, but to limit access and mobility; to keep life (in the US) on a prescriptive, constrictive path.
When people tell you they’re about protecting a baby’s as a means of being pro-choice, it often sounds more like they’re consigning themselves to bartering a woman’s body for the sake and sanctity of being right. For a group so hell-bent to decree that Planned Parenthood and organizations like them harvest babies’ body parts, there seems to be an eagerness to see women’s bodies as solely purposed for nothing but harvesting. It reduces the notion of choice and reproduction as being not only moot, but flat; the idea that, in life, these actions of coupling not only will but should produce an inevitability around creating a family. It results in being divisive in the same manner that we frame a great deal of our resource allotment, policy decisions (from housing, to education, to income to immigration) around the situational advantages we use to judge and corral people all the time.
Sharon’s lucky to have Rob; someone who, you get the impression, gets that part of being a feminist is calling out the pragmatism of what’s at stake; when he says “You’re pregnant and I’m not.” he’s not jabbing an eye (or uh, anything else) at Sharon so much as acknowledging, and valuing her body. His one line is a reminder that choice doesn’t always exist on an equal access, and that a woman’s body is first and foremost (and last and uh, aftermost?) hers and so what comes with it a respect for that regardless of what choice she deems to make. Catastrophe, for all its bluster and embarrassment at times, also routinely shows Rob in awe of Sharon’s power–she chooses, ultimately, to bring both of these lives into her world, and you’re touched by the number of times that Rob is clearly awed that they’re doing, with Sharon leading the way (often terrified).
Which is why it’s also easy to imagine Rob’s same character in a different context; a wealthy, privileged man, full of bluster taking center stage with the exact opposite stance as the show’s Rob, using a different logic using the same line: “You’re pregnant and I’m not.”
That would be a catastrophe.