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Television

On TV, rage has become the new romance

Catastrophe
Sharon Horgan, left, and Rob Delaney both star and are writers of the romantic comedy series “Catastrophe” on Amazon.
(Ed Miller / Amazon Studios)

Music may be the food of love, but anger has long been its faithful foot soldier. 

In fiction at least, the mismatched pair who bickers and barks in Act 1 is certain to be gazing at each other in chagrined bliss by the end of Act 3.

For television writers it’s a bit more complicated. They live in a perpetual state of Act 2 where, according to conventional wisdom, the longer you keep the couple apart, and exchanging barbs, the better. As with Jane Austen protagonists, once the lovers unite, the end is near. (This is often known as the “Moonlighting” curse, because that‘s what happened when Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis’ antagonistic PIs finally stopped fighting.)

Many shows have proved the curse wrong — “Bones,” “Castle,” “New Girl” —though each has had to go to great lengths to replace separation by mutual loathing with something else: kidnapping, undercover work, a contrived breakup. Even so, nothing quite matches the sting and energy of a smart, sexy snipe-fest, which is why so many comedies are about long-married couples: Having kindled desire, irritated banter goes full circle and replaces it.

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But lately, anger is not the spark nor the substitute, it’s the thing itself.

In Hulu’s “Difficult People,” the “marriage” of best friends played by Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner is almost completely based on their shared, and constantly vocalized, furious contempt for other people. Amazon’s “Catastrophe” revolves around a couple whose idea of an endearment runs something like “Even if I wanted to kill you, I wouldn’t kill you. Or have you killed.” And the title of  FXX’s “You’re the Worst” pretty much says it all — Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) are narcissistic, self-destructive nightmares who scrape something like love from the ashes of a relationship they are continually burning down.

Rage has become the new romance.

Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner in “Difficult People” on Hulu.
Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner in “Difficult People” on Hulu.
(Hulu )

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Comedy has always had a river of anger running through it, and when television recently exploded from its literal and creative confines, anger did a lot of the pushing. “Dark” comedy became a hallmark of male-centric cable dramas such as “The Sopranos,”  “Rescue Me”  and “Breaking Bad” while the outrageous behavior of catfight shows like “The Real Housewives” franchise and “The Bachelor” gave women more license to lose, and take, control.  Though they share a sexual freedom made possible by “Sex and the City,” rage-filled female comedies like “Nurse Jackie,” “Veep” and “Orange Is the New Black” may owe as much to the Kardashians as to Livia and Carmela Soprano.

What happens on cable rarely stays on cable, and the satiric hostility of “Married With Children” is now all but passé. The multitasking exhaustion/resentment that has come to define motherhood is mirrored on even mild-mannered shows such as “Modern Family,” “The Middle” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” where fathers are often the more low-key parent. Indeed, a perpetually furious but still lovable and very attractive mother like Constance Wu’s Jessica Huang on “Fresh Off the Boat” would have been impossible to imagine even five years ago.

Constance Wu and Randall Park in “Fresh Off the Boat” on ABC.
Constance Wu and Randall Park in “Fresh Off the Boat” on ABC.
(ABC )

With anger roiling in the before and after of love’s tender bloom, it’s only natural that it would seep into the flower itself, and as a rage/romance hybrid, “Catastrophe”  probably wins Best in Show.

Creators Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney play a barb-trading couple, conveniently named Sharon and Rob, who enjoy what appears to be a string-free weeklong hook-up; Sharon, who is Irish, lives in London where Rob, who is American, is visiting on business.

Fun times, until Sharon discovers she is pregnant. 

Rob flies back, the two decide to marry, for convenience but also because they each possess an equal ability to seesaw between quick judgmental anger and rueful big-hearted acceptance. “I wouldn’t want a bus to hit her, but maybe she could be arrested for tax fraud … something to wipe the smug off her,” Sharon says early on of one of her friends, and Rob completely gets it.

With its backward trajectory — baby then marriage then something like love — bumps are guaranteed, and not just of the baby variety. There are breakups, including one on the honeymoon, and though the second season opens with them married and expecting another child, fond, and not so fond, insult remains their lingua franca. “Who doesn’t want to take care of their kids,” Rob says as they attempt to celebrate their anniversary. “But this, this is a slog.” “Thanks, lover,” Sharon replies with a laugh.

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In the first season, some of the anger is born of fear, in the second, parental exhaustion, but most of it is personally essential, which is the show’s most dazzling feat.

Horgan and Delaney are hilarious, as writers and performers, together and separately, and their willingness to cross even the line at the edge of “out there” is admirable. But what makes “Catastrophe” a flagship of the new rage-filled rom-com is its refusal to buy into the beloved myth of love’s transformational proprieties. As if saying a few words, or signing a paper could turn one sort of a person into another. By skipping, literally and figuratively, “the honeymoon period” “Catastrophe” rejects the notion that two previously prickly people miraculously become a cozy couple until years of marriage erode the filters and return them to their original state.

Aya Cash and Chris Geere in “You’re the Worst.”
Aya Cash and Chris Geere in “You’re the Worst.”
(Prashant Gupta / FX )

Sharon and Rob, like the leads of “You’re the Worst” and “Difficult People,” reject the filters and remain in their original state no matter what their relationship status. Mercifully, in each show, everyone has a thick skin in addition to a sharp tongue, which keeps their battles from becoming abusive.

But the anger is also real because living with other people is difficult, even if you choose to. For some, love may be all about surrender, for others it will always be a series of skirmishes followed by temporary truce. And that reality needs its own romantic fiction too.

MORE:

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