The thread that weaves the narrative of the Netflix mockumentary, “Hard Cell,” is empathy. The statement holds true for the most part, until a plot emerges out of nowhere and changes the tonality so drastically that more than becoming suspenseful and thrilling, it feels like a debacle. Catherine Tate, who has directed the series with James Kayler, plays six characters in the mockumentary. The first one in the array of characters is that of the Governess of HMP Woldsley Women’s Prison, Laura Willis. Laura accepts very willingly that it was not her plan A to become the governor of a women’s prison. But now that she was here, she intended on making some progressive changes that facilitated the rehabilitation of the inmates. The philosophy of Laura seems like a rip-off from the manager of Wernham Hogg, David Brent, who thought that he was a flagbearer of positive change.
The next character she plays is a timid first-time offender, Angela Brooks, who at first glance looks like somebody who has been falsely accused of a crime, and who is also credited with bringing about a twist in the plot. Catherine Tate plays Marco, a male security officer, who is heavily reliant on a made-up accent. Big Viv is a loud and violent inmate who does impersonations of the Kardashians and is probably the only burlesque treatment by Tate that is able to pack a punch or two. Ros, an inmate who just needs an excuse to get inked, likes to believe in the fact that her mother loves her and that one day, when she has enough money, she will buy a caravan and go with her on a road trip. Ros’s mother, on the other hand, has a jarring effect on almost everybody except her. Catherine Tate plays the mother, bringing about a brutal nonchalance in contrast to Ros’s affectionate behavior.
The Governess of Hmp Woldsley, Laura Willis, does not want to go by the conventions. She wants to usher in a change and not follow the copybook methods that she feels have become outdated. She believes in the fact that creativity leads to rehabilitation. Though Laura has an assistant, Dean, whom she calls her number two, she is very vocal about the fact that she doesn’t need him meddling in her affairs.
She ropes in Cheryl Fergison, an ex-soap star, to direct an adaptation of “West Side Story” with the inmates. There was an air of excitement amidst the inmates as they were going to meet their favorite television character, Heather, for which the director, Cheryl Fergison, was famous. As soon as the production of the musical starts, and the inmates are all amped up to give it their all in their performance, they are met with news that derails their plans. Laura tells Cheryl that they were denied the rights to West Side Story and that they would have to think about another alternative. Cheryl, together with the inmates, makes a decision to create an authentic production called “Songs of the Inside,” where the prisoners would talk about their struggles, and it would be structured in a musical format. Where on one hand, Cheryl tries to collaborate and cope with the uncanny nature of the inmates, Laura appropriates the plumbing funds into theater production, as she believes that creativity should be given priority at all costs, even if it means clogged washrooms and a centralized stink enveloping the prison, making it hard to even breathe.
All the characters, especially the ones played by Tate, have a distinctive flavor and a lot of potential to be developed into something intriguing and entertaining. But the writers failed to build upon that and abandoned it to be merely caricatures. They harp upon the cliches, be it the accent or the more internal qualities, and never explore the depths. All of it would still have made sense if the narrative had been comical, but the writing struggles to bring about the desired response. Somewhere down the line, the ineffectiveness makes you question whether it was all to provide Catharine Tate an opportunity to showcase her versatility. The narrative needed to be maneuvered in a way that didn’t seem frivolous in nature. “Hard Cell” looks like a compact series, with only six episodes and an approximate running time of 25 minutes, but it seems to linger on for an eternity due to the lack of strong conflicts. With one whole episode based on a plumbing issue that tried to deride the issues faced by an inmate and generate laughs at their expense, the writers tried very hard to extract humor out of uninventive situations that were stretched beyond their boiling point.
The final twist, which tries to give an accentuated meaning to what seemed like a misadventure, spoils the broth even more. For the first five episodes, “Hard Cell” was about sisterhood, rehabilitation, collaboration, the power of art, and much more. But all of a sudden, the writers have a change of heart and decide to impart a spine-chilling end to it, in which they fail miserably and make it look like a spurious and pretentious affair.
There is no denying that “Hard Cell” had the intention and also the potential to create something authentic, but it misses the spot as it becomes delusional along the way. Catherine Tate tries to display her range as an actor, but without being backed by the required nuances, it is never enough to hook you up.
Though “Hard Cell,” streaming on Netflix, gives us a few moments of satirical humor with a loose narrative and a lack of strong conflict, it never really quenches your thirst properly.
“Hard Cell” is a 2022 Mockumentary Series created by Catherine Tate.