Crossing the pond with a comedy series is always a tricky affair, and while there are some major successes that have come from the effort, it’s even more difficult when we really narrow the brand of comedy. Based on the British series Miranda (starring Miranda Hart), Call Me Kat takes on the situational trappings and comedic stylings (like continuously breaking the fourth wall) of the original, but it has to translate some things to take a real stab at the heart of the original series.
Miranda was a show (it kicked off in ’09) that was not exactly hilarious, and wasn’t trying to be, but was funny, charming, and possibly aiming at a throwback sense of “comfortable” that was much more common a decade or two earlier. Mayim Bialik stars as Kat, which serves as its own whimsical entry into her running a cat cafe (as opposed to the original joke shop). Kat is 39, single, and describes herself as socially awkward. A “life and times” comedy, we wind through the struggles of (largely) being perfectly happy with a state of affairs that society, and her mom, isn’t comfortable with.
While Mom (Swoosie Kurtz) is dedicated to worrying about Kat’s lack of a relationship, Kat herself isn’t worried about such things and revels in her independent life, until she finds out Max (Cheyenne Jackson), an old crush, is back in town. The series wanders through Kat’s clashes with various aspects of reality, meeting them all with assorted levels of cheer and/or a resigned throwing up of her hands. Her mother nags, a friend tells her that “plus ones” are only for people you’ve been dating for a certain amount of time, cat cafe customers… do whatever it is they do. Kat smiles, dances around her apartment, professes that she is happy to grow old as the “good kind of cat lady.” Hilarity ensues.
It’s a series that feels cut from the same cloth as Leslie Jordan‘s recent effort, The Cool Kids. It leans on lovable snark and whimsical self-abasement, updates ’80s sitcom sensibilities, and has people acting a little goofy a fair amount of the time. Here, as there, Jordan is one of the show’s best elements. He’s one of the people working in Kat’s cafe and increasingly becomes a confidant/sounding board.
The show’s main difficulty is that it isn’t funny. At least, not in the way American audiences generally want their humor delivered to them. Bialik almost instantly delivers a certain awkward charm, though not precisely Miranda Hart’s (which is better), and on that score alone the show sets up to deliver a series that could run several seasons. Miranda managed the success it did as much because you just can’t help wanting to hang out with Miranda Hart, and the semi-autobiographical series opened that door. The comedy was just a bonus/natural consequence of doing so. It’s a show that’s fun more than it’s funny, and comical more than comedic. It’s spilling drinks and “having the cat scared out of you,” as opposed to laughing out loud, and being carried along by pseudo-comeraderie instead of joining in the spit takes.
Beyond the hurdle of being a show that is hard to describe as being funny, it’s a show that is also simply hard to describe. There’s a British version of “quirky characters” that goes well beyond what American audiences take from the description, and though things are toned down here, and balanced by the “regular” world, the approach to finding the heart of things is the same. Shows with these characters (think The Vicar of Dibley, or Richard Ayoade’s character in The IT Crowd) defy convincing summary. “It’s about a town full of people you’re scared for because they are that dumb,” is a rough sell.
Call Me Kat swims in similar waters, even if no one is in a Chrissy Snow camp, because we’re falling for characters that are not so much people but furthest extensions of kinds of people. If that ends up sounding like Bialik has some experience with such characters, it should, and if the idea of hanging out with oddish people riffing on the effort to keep “real world” viewpoints at bay, that probably should too. But, Kat is a different brand of embracing one’s own eccentricities, and it’s the brand that allows someone to make an autobiographical sitcom where the star is sort of a goofball.
If it sticks with where it seems to be headed, continues with the overall arc of the original, and includes a lot of Jordan, it will ultimately be a 10, but for now it has moments where the translation loses a little something.