'Hard Cell' review: Catherine Tate's new Netflix show is a comedy vacuum

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Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)
Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)

After Catherine Tate's The Nan Movie arrived in cinemas with its director's name removed to overwhelmingly poor reviews, the British comic returns to safer territory with Hard Cell, a new comedy series on Netflix.

The actor, writer and comedian is a household name with numerous award nominations. BAFTA has recognised her contributions to light entertainment through the self-titled Catherine Tate Show seven times, while America has shown its appreciation with an Emmy acknowledgement to boot.

Read more: Netflix shares first look at Hard Cell

If audiences then take into consideration her long running involvement with Doctor Who alongside David Tennant, as well as other notable dramatic turns, then it becomes apparent that this is a performer of substance.

Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)
Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)

With a track record of that calibre, it should be no surprise that streaming studios came calling looking to exploit her distinctive style of comedy. The courtship ended with her own limited series on Netflix entitled Hard Cell. Available from Tuesday 12 April, it will determine whether this calculated risk pays dividends, or fails to translate to a global audience, always on the look out for something different.

The good news is that each episode of Hard Cell is less than 30 minutes long, which would normally mean audiences are in for some concisely written comedy drama. Under normal circumstances this means solidly constructed characters facing adversity, learning life lessons and growing as people.

Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)
Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)

Unfortunately, confined within the wall of HMP Woldsley, a fictional female only prison, writer, co-director and series lead Catherine Tate does none of these things.

Playing a total of six characters, which run the gamut from governor to prison officer, this revered comedy talent tries to keep all her balls in the air. Pitching it as The Office in prison with no discernible degree of pathos to add depth, Hard Cell is an uncomfortable comedy vacuum that fails to improve as episodes come and go.

Read more: Everything new on Netflix in April

Tate might have considered this as a good platform to embrace her undeniable talent for character work, but on more than one occasion the premise falls flat.

Her event planner turned governor Laura Willis, rarely comes close to Ricky Gervais and his tragic creation David Brent, while the supporting cast are so thinly written that applying archetype to them as a description feels like a disservice.

Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)
Cheryl Fergison in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)

Backed-up plumbing gags, awkwardly deployed toilet humour, and an awful running joke involving EastEnders alumni Cheryl Fergison also barely register in the carnage. With the prospect of a prison production of West Side Story announced early on, while Catherine Tate turns up as various showcase characters, Hard Cell continues its journey south with the swiftness of a runaway train.

What made The Office so good came down to its writers, who made sure to drop relatable characters into excruciating circumstances. There was an oblivious disregard about David Brent which empowered everyone around him, which is something Steve Coogan has channelled through Alan Partridge as far back as 1994 in The Day Today.

Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)
Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)

None of the characters in Hard Cell come close to grounding this series, which is why in the main it fails to work. Stuck in limbo between comedy and drama whilst achieving neither, what should feel empowering becomes overbearing, while any attempts at comedy are crass and borderline juvenile in execution.

Read more: New on Disney+ in April

Netflix has a reputation for relinquishing creative control to those with talent, thinking quite rightly, that they would possess the clarity of vision to make their idea work. Catherine Tate has been in the entertainment industry for a long time and comes with proven credentials, which would indicate she has all those qualities. Unfortunately, Hard Cell is not the best advertisement for what this performer is capable of at all.

Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)
Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)

There is no doubt that she has a unique talent for character comedy, as well as a fanbase which finds her brand of humour appealing. However, this Netflix series is not going to convert the non-believer or potentially even please diehard fans.

It feels lazy, lacks a cohesive plot line and even after three episodes fails to engage. If there are any major developments which turn Hard Cell into a revelatory experience justifying the Netflix investment, then people would have moved on after an hour and 30 minutes.

Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)
Catherine Tate plays multiple characters in the prison comedy Hard Cell. (Netflix)

Every single supporting actor has been sold down the river on this show, assuming their involvement alongside Catherine Tate would lead to something more. What becomes painfully obvious early on is just how short changed everyone has been.

Read more: New on Sky Cinema in April

If audiences are after format defining dramedies, they are best served by revisiting the original Office, together with any series of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not only are they perfect examples of what Hard Cell wanted to be, but they also manage to fall under the umbrella of entertainment.

Hard Cell is streaming on Netflix from 12 April.

Watch: Catherine Tate's Nan arrives for movie premiere

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