February 28, 2021

Yes, Call her Kat, because she's NOT Miranda

The farcical British comedy series Miranda aired between 2009 and 2015 on the BBC. It was semi-autobiographical, based upon the life and standup persona of comedian Miranda Hart. It is very funny, very British, and very specifically suited to its creator/star. 

In January of 2021, the new sitcom Call Me Kat, a adaptation of Miranda, premiered on FOX starring Mayim Bialik. Both shows are about a single, business-owning woman in her thirties whose social awkwardness leads to the comedic situations of the genre. But while Miranda worked, Call Me Kat simply doesn't. I've analyzed two episodes of the American adaptation, comparing them to their source material, to try to figure out why.

In "Vacation" (Call Me Kat, S1E3) and "Holiday"(Miranda, S1E4), the titular character tells her friends and mother she's going overseas for a solo vacation, when in fact she's simply staying at a local hotel. Both "Therapy" (Call Me Kat, S1E4), and "Just Act Normal" (Miranda, S2E5), find Kat/Miranda and her mother at a psychiatrist's office. 

Changes to the storyline in both of these adaptations highlight some of the structural and tonal problems with Call Me Kat. Consider the inciting incidents and ultimate resolutions of the stories:

Miranda goes "on holiday" in her hometown because she has no desire or inclination to go anywhere else. "A night out for me is going into the garden, coming back, ahh, home at last!" Miranda tells the audience. She tells her friends she's going to Thailand to get them off her back. Kat checks into a hotel in her hometown because she chickens out of going on a free trip to Puerto Rico alone. “I got freaked out. It’s my mom’s fault," she tells her friend Max. The result is a Kat less self-possessed than Miranda, less confident in her own choices and the life she leads. Miranda brings awkwardness to situations because she's confidently strange, and that's presented to the audience through her little habits (e.g., singing or dancing in public for longer than anyone should, making socially inappropriate observations). Kat seems like a mostly normal person who occasionally does something odd like eat a massive plate of crab legs at a hotel buffet. She might declare that she is comfortable being herself, or that she is eccentric, but the story doesn't support it. 

Kat and Sheila. 
Source: telltaletv.com
The first 8 minutes of "Therapy" are spent in setup, with Kat fighting with and needling her mother (Swoosie Kurtz), who she then "jokes" she'd like to murder (!!!). It is this argument, and the suggestion of her friends, that lead Kat and her mother Sheila into therapy. The entirety of "Just Act Normal" takes place within the psychiatrist's office. We don't find out why Miranda and her mother Penny (Patricia Hodge), are in therapy until midway through the episode, when the two of them comically reveal the circumstances that led to this court-ordered appointment. The humorous back and forth between the two of them is the joke, in stark contrast to the bleak setup of Call Me Kat. In an even bleaker turn, the resolution to Kat and Sheila’s time on the couch is the discovery of their mutual depression over the death of Kat's father. (Where did this even come from? Miranda's father is very much alive, and his relationship with Penny is the source of many laughs!) Call Me Kat attempts to layer depth and sincerity atop a premise of absurdity. The show is so wrapped up in offering a Very Special Episode about therapy and antidepressants that the humor is lost altogether. And by the way, it is possible to make a defense of those things successfully in a comedy. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did it repeatedly. But Call Me Kat fails in both humor and message. 

Miranda and Penny.
Source: bbc.co.uk
Miranda and Penny eventually bond not over a diagnosis, but their mutual annoyance with the psychiatrist. The dialogue doesn't need to tell us the two of them are alike because the episode has shown us that all the way through, via synchronous dancing and line delivery, and even in the recounting of the absurd ice cream van debacle that led them to the office in the first place. 

I mention the length of time spent on the setup because it affects a joke that is in both versions of the story.  The psychiatrist in each episode remains silent at the start of the scene. In "Just Act Normal," he speaks for the first time nearly 10 minutes into the episode, startling Miranda, causing her to spill coffee on her trousers, and subsequently turn a tablecloth into a sarong.  Kat and her mother don’t arrive at the psychiatrist’s office until the 8 minute mark, and the doctor speaks just 1 minute later. There is no comedic payoff to the joke, not only because the timing is truncated, but also because Kat’s mother simply says, “Oh, you can speak!” Not much of a punchline.

In both "Therapy" and "Vacation," the momentum of Kat's story is continually interrupted by the B stories  about the supporting cast. Secondary stories can be useful when they say, release or raise tension. But here they just interrupt the flow. It’s as if the show doesn’t trust the audience to live in the tension of a scene, wonder about anything, or wait longer than 60 seconds for an explanation. Or else the show distrusts its actors to hold the audience’s attention between planting and payoff. 

Further frustrating the use of the side characters is their poor connection to Kat herself. Two employees in her cafe can deliver a few one-liners, sure. But they are no replacement for Miranda's Stevie (Sarah Hadland), who is best friend and foil to Miranda. They play off one another in both dialogue and physical comedy and clearly inhabit the same world. It pains me to say a bad word about Swoosie Kurtz, but she does not work here. Sheila is stiff, overbearing, not funny, and not fun. Penny, by contrast, is "SUCH FUN." 

A few other things do get lost in translation in the adaptation. One is the breaking of the fourth wall that Miranda featured heavilyThe asides to the audience work well in Miranda because of Hart's comedic timing and stand-up skills. She's speaking to the audience to entertain them. Kat is just kind of, providing exposition, maybe? The camera work and direction fail Bialik here, too. Miranda's asides are framed tight against her face; her acting alone doesn't need to distinguish these moments (though it could.) All Bialik does during these digressions is turn her head to face a camera (and her intonation and delivery doesn’t change.) 

Maddeningly, the creators of Call Me Kat seem to have attempted to recreate Miranda's family's poshness by making Kat's mother... friends with the Governor of Kentucky? By putting her in a ball gown? This is a massive translation error. The UK social strata cannot be replicated in a US sitcom and TV writers need to stop trying.

Miranda feels like a spiritual successor to I Love Lucy, with Hart excelling as a physical comedian.  I'll say for Bialik that she actually holds her own with the physical comedy, but because Call Me Kat lacks the absurdist tone and company of characters that Miranda has, those pratfalls are out of place. Instead, Call Me Kat rests on the boring premises and basic delivery of every dull sitcom you’ve ever forgotten about. The only positive thing I’ve left to say for Call Me Kat is that it inspired me to rewatch Miranda.