The Duchess Netflix Series Review: Katherine Ryan’s comedy is confusing and exhausting
Rhea Srivastava -
What is the story about?
Just when you thought that the fundamental formula of foul-mouthed young parent comedies (read - Breeders, Trying, Workin’ Moms) on streaming platforms was drawing the line at being relatable, in came Katherine Ryan. The stand-up star (who you probably saw hovering about in a British panel show, more likely) makes her sitcom debut with The Duchess - a show with some outrageously funny moments but an insufferable protagonist.
The six-part show on Netflix follows a single mother and potter, Katherine, who decides to have another baby ten years after having Olive out of wedlock. Katherine is a fashionista (the least likely fictionalized part of the character) and a prick-ish bully to her baby daddy Shep, her current boyfriend sweet and sensitive Evan, and sometimes even to her best friend Bev, but somehow a great mother to Olive. Somewhere on the way of starting out like a groupie to Sheps boy band Tru-Se, ending up single and pregnant, starting her own pottery business to fend for herself and her baby, and finally sheltering Olive from possibly any bitter truth in the world, Katherine has been enabled a license to be a shitty person. Meanwhile, she decides that since Olive turned out to so great, it might be worth a try to have another baby with Shep to keep her company. While this might be one of the thinnest plots in sitcom history, I can buy using this to make a mini-series out of Ryan’s irreverent humour. Ergo, The Duchess exists.
What anyone wouldn’t be able to buy is how even in such a short season, the show takes so much time to establish characters and set the unfiltered irreverent tone that Katherine is known for. She’s a great mother, in spite of being a generally unlikeable human being. And this should come across from her interactions with Olive almost instantaneously if we want to be invested in this tale. What Kate does instead is waltz into her daughter’s school courtyard wearing a large sweatshirt which has the words ‘World’s Smallest Pussy’ and threatens fellow mothers that she will sleep with their partners if her daughter continues to be bullied.
Most of the season then goes on to show Ryan as a daring loud-mouthed brat, one who just insults people for the heck of it and refers to anal sex in front of random strangers and her ten-year-old, possibly. None of this moves the plot forward other than trying to show how she has had to develop a tough exterior due to being abandoned as a single mother at a young age. It’s a victim’s cry which is too overindulgent and too boring to establish any connection.
Midway into the series, the show starts picking up the pace and getting to the point but then we have to endure a bizarre adoption sequence where Ryan, a rich white woman insults a black social worker and demands to buy a baby from an adoption agency while insulting the practice of adoption itself. There are several sequences like this one that are just added for the sake of humour. And that would be fine in any sitcom if the humour wasn’t in such bad taste.
Katherine absolutely dotes on Olive, which is a lovely thing to see to a certain extent… till the point where she mentions that she actually likes spending time with her, or how she often reiterates that she’s turned out wonderfully. To give credit where due, Kate never states the existence of Olive being a deterrent to her life. And there are smaller moments of the mother and daughter bonding which is truly heartening. But one can’t help but judge the codependent relationship the two share where Olive has taken more of a spousal role (they share a bed, and Olive is the one who does most of the talking at both the adoption meeting as well as the IVF appointment). This relationship has certain underlying issues worth exploring, but the show isn’t interested in that as much as it is interested in being cuss-y and edgy.
The Duchess is one of those star vehicles where you will certainly enjoy the show if Katherine Ryan’s body language and aesthetic is already right up your alley. But it’s not like there is any depth to her villainy, or the opportunity to grow, on either side of the spectrum. Katherine is superficial and rude, extremely petty and immature. Katy Byrne as Olive is better at owning her scenes and coming across as a strong performer. But she has still been written as an annoying brat who has to project her ‘adult-ness’ on everyone. One can’t blame that trajectory since it is Katherine who expects her to be her ultimate partner rather than a daughter. Rory Keenan as Shep as a former pop-star is fun to watch, and one can’t help but feel a bit bad for Steen Raskopoulos as the tolerant boyfriend Evan.
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Of course, the show looks glossy and fashionable. Katherine does have an excellent collection of hair accessories, which I admire
The tragedy of The Duchess is that it has the style and aesthetic to get you hooked from the trailer (much like what its title suggests) and there are some genuinely witty lines here and there. The show also doesn’t rely on how difficult parenthood is to establish the comedy in a parenting comedy. There is obviously a real relationship to work off beneath Kate and Olive (the show is based on Katherine’s own motherhood) and there are are some sparkling conversations between the two, some touching ones too (like a haircut outing that goes wrong). Some shocking lines may evoke laughter.
Other than that, The Duchess is not an overall compelling show. Kate unlikeability and selfishness are so extreme that I wonder why any man, any friend, any acquaintance or anyone else would waste two minutes on her. And the other characters don’t have it any better, they’re all horrible.
Did I enjoy it?
No. I really struggled through it.
Do I recommend it?
If you’re a fan of Katherine Ryan or foul language on TV, give it a shot. Otherwise, plenty of other better parenting comedies out there.