I've now watched five of the six episodes of season 1 of Catastrophe, an Amazon TV series available via streaming (free to Prime members). It's an intelligent single-camera sitcom about two strangers who hook up for a six-day fling, which results in an unplanned pregnancy - the catastrophe of the title.
I like the show well enough, but even though it can be funny and smart, something about it is depressing, and I don't mean the part about an unplanned pregnancy. No, what's depressing is the world the characters inhabit, the very nature of their lives.
Most of their friends and relatives are just awful. Even the few nice ones aren't really all that nice. Parents are minimally supportive at best. Supposed friends turn out to harbor not-so-secret resentments and hostilities. Doctors are so tone-deaf to basic emotional interaction that they deliver distressing news without warning or context. Business colleagues pretend to be friendly but actually hate each other on the rawest, most visceral level. Even a grade school teacher refuses to smile in front of her students, explaining that if she shows any weakness, it will be like throwing chum into a shark tank.
Though the characters are educated and semi-affluent, they live in a world of remarkable intellectual aridity. All conversations, including seduction, pillow talk, and marriage proposals, are dominated by the f-word and its equivalents. Nobody talks about ideas, except for content-free sound bites about global warming or nuclear war. Nobody has the slightest interest in spirituality or in finding any meaning in life. One character does practice homeopathy, but she's depicted as a hopeless neurotic who deserves ridicule; when she says a friend cured himself of prostate cancer with a walnut diet, the main character delivers the laugh line, "What'd he do, shove the walnuts up his ass?"
(Not that I'm endorsing homeopathy or walnut diets, but couldn't these people be even slightly open to new ideas - or at least treat differences of opinion with a modicum of civility?)
Needless to say, no one practices religion, though we are treated to a diatribe on the idiocy of believing in the devil. No one is interested in art or music. No one reads books, except for a book on pregnancy. Even the main female character, supposedly a frustrated writer, shows no sign of ever having read a book for pleasure. We know she's a wannabe writer mainly because she detests a popular female writer of children's fantasies - not for aesthetic reasons but because of a personal grudge. In fact, much of what we know about these people is defined by their hatreds, which are always petty and vindictive.
What's largely missing from this world are things that used to be taken for granted as part of any well lived life. A set of principles. A commitment to something higher than the mundane. Loyalty, honesty, kindness. Meaningful family relationships. A sense of community, of shared values.
And you say: So what? The show's creators set out to realize a humorous but bleak vision, and they succeeded.
But that's the thing. I don't think they set out to do that at all. I think they did it this way because this really is life for them and for the people they know. In the circles in which they travel, conversations really are conducted on this level, and people really are constantly stabbing each other in the back (when they're not spitting invective directly into each other's face), and seriousness really is gauged by how freely they disparage religion or genuflect before climate change.
All the things missing from this world are things that the "elites" of today, the educated, cosmopolitan class, have consciously rejected. A sense of community requires shared values, but ... values ? Come on, nobody believes in that crap anymore. Nobody believes in anything anymore, except sexual freedom, the one absolute. Nobody reads, studies, ponders, communes with nature or God, or asks what it's all about. Even love and friendship are not to be taken seriously, since we know it's all fake and we secretly hate each other and root for our friends to fail.
I'm not saying the show is bad. Not at all. In fact, I think it's devastatingly accurate, in ways that it probably didn't quite intend to be. In its quest to depict two smart, sophisticated people dealing with a real-world problem in a modern way, Catastrophe shows us the hollowness of a society mostly stripped of the old-fashioned qualities that once made life tolerable. The two main characters are in it together - and they are in it alone. They do try to help each other (the man in the relationship seems particularly concerned about trying to do the right thing, one of the few grace notes in the series), but no one else is trying very hard.
What a difference it would make if just one of their friends had said, "Wow, that's a lot to deal with. Whatever you need me for, I'm there for you. I want to help you in any way I can, because, honestly, I love you." But no one in their world could utter those words. The sentiment itself has become literally unspeakable.
To me, that's the real catastrophe.