Donna Noble was the best companion in the recent history of Doctor Who. Sure, Amy Pond and Rory were awesome, Martha became a badass, Rose rejuvenated the series, and Nardole … existed, but Donna stood head and shoulders above them all. Hers was a presence as commanding as the Doctor’s — loud, brash, and though not fearless, she was remarkably good at turning her fear into anger and using it as fuel. Donna provided the Doctor with a companion free of romantic complications and never let him indulge in his obsessive self-flagellation. They were besties. Her fate, like so many who accompany the Time Lord on their journey, was tragic, and Tate played her audience like a fiddle. I cried like a little baby, and have adored Catherine Tate ever since. So it brings me no joy to report that her Netflix workplace sitcom Hard Cell, set in a British women’s prison, is only one step above a complete dud, and Tate herself carries much of the blame.
Hard Cell is your standard multi-camera workplace comedy, except it’s set in HMP Woldsley, and Catherine Tate —who also created and writes the show — plays 6 different characters in the prison, ranging from the prison warden (Laura) to a male guard (Marco), and a number of prisoners. It’s supposed to be funny that Tate’s immediately recognizable, I think, but it’s not. Warden Laura is determined to make Woldsley a model of prison reform and so has invited a documentary team into the prison to film the inmates’ “groundbreaking” presentation of West Side Story directed by EastEnders’ Cheryl Fergison, playing herself. One small problem; despite blowing the prison’s plumbing budget on handmade scripts, Laura failed to get permission to do West Side Story. This derails Laura’s planned TED Talk entitled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, stolen directly from the title of Maya Angelou’s book. The prisoners come up with their own performance despite numerous setbacks. Meanwhile, new inmate Ange (Tate) struggles to find her place among the inmates amid constant bullying and threats of violence from Big Viv (Tate) and Anastasia (Niky Wardley) as she waits for a quick release.
The show’s not a complete failure, and there are a few touching moments and laughs along the way. The former involves Cal (Lorna Brown) and Sal (Caroline Harding), a “gay for the stay” couple who fall in love and fear Cal’s upcoming release; pregnant inmate Charlee’s gradual opening up to Laura and her fellow inmates; and childlike Roz’s (Tate) desperate hope that her POS mother (also Tate) will watch her perform. The laughs, mild and short-lived, are usually one-offs involving homemade sex toys or random inmate interactions. The many, many running gags, on the other hand, almost never work. From Laura repeatedly mistaking Cheryl Fergison for an inmate to her second-in-command Dean’s constant attempts to make Laura use the phrase “Number Two” in a sentence, and the prisoners’ uninspired choices in nicknames — White Pat, Black Pat, Pat-Pat, No-Hat Cathy, and Thick as Shit Jean — they’re all dead on arrival.
The show does improve as it progresses. Episodes 5 and 6 finally give the cast room to breathe, and most of them are great. Guard Gary is a bit pathetic and leans into the nice guy routine too much, but it’s tolerable. Number Two Dean starts out as an ass, albeit one with understandable reasons for his attitude, but gradually becomes more human as the series progresses, and by the end is fully invested in the production and Laura’s success. It’s a shame that the 4 previous episodes are almost entirely a waste, with most of the issues involving Tate’s caricatures of female inmates and scatological humor that falls flat. I enjoy a good poop joke as much as any guy trapped in eternal adolescence, but these aren’t funny.
Ultimately, Hard Cell fails by focusing too much on Tate’s puddle-deep impressions rather than the surrounding cast. Laura, Ange, and Roz work fairly well, but the others are entirely disposable. It’s a shame because there’s a hint of gold shining through the muck and I’d love to see what a second season looks like if Tate, her fellow writers, and the cast find their rhythm. As it stands, however, this is one show that should remain behind bars.
Header Image Source: Netflix screenshots