The Long Haul — Rob Delaney in Catastrophe

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Rob Delaney as Rob Norris in Catastrophe (2015 – 2019)

The television comedy Catastrophe begins with a one-night stand, or at least what seems to be an instance of strangers falling into bed together with a negligible likelihood of any sort of romantic reunion in the future. Rob Norris (Rob Delaney) is visiting London for work and meets schoolteacher Sharon Morris (Sharon Horgan) in a crowded pub. The post-tryst parting is significantly complicated by the eventual discovery that Sharon got pregnant from the encounter. Instead of a fleeting, arousing encounter, Rob and Sharon declare a bond of intended permanence by choosing to marry and start building a family. They barely know each other — and aren’t even entirely sure they like each other — but they lock in together anyway.

An unromantic comedy of sorts, Catastrophe draws much of its humor from the simmering hostility in the central relationship. Across four seasons, Ron and Sharon form an undeniable bond, but it’s crisscrossed by hairline cracks. The relationship seems ready to shatter at any given moment, sharp perspectives and a mutual capacity for moments of volcanic temper constantly exacerbated by the usual messiness of modern life. The show depicts every day as the twenty-sixth mile of a marathon staged during a heat wave.

The success of Catastrophe is heavily dependent on the two leads, who also co-created and co-wrote the series. Both are strong in their roles, but Delaney brings an added level of tangled contradiction and whiplash unpredictability to Rob. A recovering alcoholic whose emotional scars are often as visible as the Flintstonian shadow of permanent whiskers on the lower half of his face, Rob is routinely wrenched by the challenges in his life: verbal skirmishes with his wife, the aggravations of emotionally stunted friends, the depth charge pressure of trying family members. His reactions are those of a man whose feelings roil just under the skin and surge straight out when the proper catalyst is introduced. He roars, he sobs, he convulses with laughter, he swells with ardor. Rob is a carnival ride without a regulator, and Delaney plays every moment with amazing conviction.

There’s another critical component to Delaney’s acting that takes the character — and the show — in uniquely comedic directions. Delaney often plays an emotion with an opposing external expression: jovial in his anger, weary in his excitement, or powerful in his collapses into vulnerability. It’s a rare version of comic irony, completely inverting the well-establishing model of using distinct contradiction to put some distance between the performer and sincerity. Delaney’s approach has the opposite impact: By playing against the norm, he heightens the sense that Rob is providing an unguarded view of his inner self. The disparate pieces of Rob’s inner being obviously intermingle. Delaney takes the bold step of keeping them hopeless ensnarled as they come out, too. The choice is jarring, exciting, and consistently hilarious.

As a character should, Rob grows and changes. But he’s also recognizably himself to the very end, including an especially tumultuous journey in the final episode of Catastrophe. Difficult lives don’t suddenly grow easier just because a narrative is coming to an end. Delaney plays the tough moments and the redeeming moments with equal poignancy. In his portrayal of Rob, Delany keeps the truth hard and moving right up to the very end.

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—Keri Russell in The Americans
—Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation
—Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory

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