Netflix UK TV review: The Duchess
Sophie Davies | On 12, Sep 2020
“I will come for your man every day of the week, until you are able to have some meaningful conversations about empathy in your home.” That’s outspoken single mother Katherine (Katherine Ryan) addressing another mum at the school gates whose daughter has been picking on hers. This threat comes after she has slapped a coffee out of the bewildered woman’s hands and called her child both “dick-slexic” and “a tasteless little ditch-pig”. And these aren’t just words – she later makes good on her threat by sending naked photos to the woman’s husband, before purposefully getting her into trouble for bringing the offending pics on to school grounds.
Katherine Ryan’s character in The Duchess (which she also wrote and exec produced) shares her name and is an extension of the bold, unapologetic persona she has honed in her stand-up comedy. The sitcom treads ground, such as the aforementioned school gates confrontation, that will be familiar to people who have seen her two Netflix stand-up specials, with her character navigating life as a Canadian single mum in London and dismissing the notion that she needs a man in her life to be happy.
The conflict of the show comes from Katherine deciding she would like to have another baby, encouraged by her nine-year-old daughter Olive (Katy Byrne), who’s eager to have a sibling. But Katherine struggles to settle on the most practical way of doing this. Her sweet dentist boyfriend, Evan (Steen Raskopoulos), with whom she has very strict boundaries, is up for it and keen to take their relationship to the next level. However, Katherine is so protective of her bond with Olive that the thought of letting Evan move into their home disgusts her. She’s also reluctant to have a baby with him in case their relationship doesn’t work out and they’re trapped in each other’s lives forever, which is what happened with her ex, eccentric former boyband member Shep (Rory Keenan).
Assuming things will be easier with no dad in the picture, she visits a fertility clinic, only to be repulsed by how young the potential sperm donors are – her catalogue of options “looks like a high school yearbook” – before considering the possibility of having another baby with her loser ex for the sake of consistency. “Even though you are by far the worst human being that I’ve ever met and I wish you a lifetime of pain and misery, we somehow made the best kid,” she grudgingly tells him, although she soon begins to go off the idea when he draws up a list of terms and conditions, which include naming the baby “Ethos”.
Although Ryan is expectedly striking at the centre of The Duchess, from her savage put-downs to her enviably glamorous outfits, the show does have some tonal issues in its writing. There’s an overall lack of nuance and over-reliance on shock value – and a few moments in the second half of the series where Katherine exhibits some more depth might be too little too late for some viewers.
The rules of its world also feel inconsistent, at times, such as in a Motherland-esque scene when several mums are scandalised by Katherine bringing a mug of tea from home on the school run, as if it’s the strangest thing they’ve ever seen at the gates and the earlier “come for your man” incident had never happened. It’s similarly unusual when the mum that Katherine accosted later ends up befriending her and even goes so far as to thank her for what she did, because it apparently gave her marriage a boost.
One of the show’s strongest points is undoubtedly the dynamic between Katherine and her daughter. Katy Byrne manages to be precocious without coming across as irritating, and some of the show’s funniest scenes are those in which Olive has the upper hand. For instance, when she learns about sex from a friend and demands that her mum tell her if it’s how she was conceived – “I’ve done a lot of things I’m really ashamed of but I’m better now” Katherine pleads, desperate not to lose her daughter’s respect – and when she shows up her mum in front of an adoption agent by getting exasperated with her dishonesty. (“They’re not going to give a baby to a liar!”)
Doon Mackichan also turns up later in the series as Shep’s suspiciously nice new girlfriend (in an amusing tangent, Katherine worries that she could be “Handmaid’s Tale-ing” her by trying to get her pregnant with Shep’s baby), while Michelle de Swarte is suitably weary as Katherine’s long-term friend and business partner.
If you’re already a big fan of Katherine Ryan’s stand-up, you might get a kick out of seeing her take her no-holds-barred persona off the stage and into the “real world”. However, if you’re unfamiliar with her work, you’d perhaps be better off seeking out her excellent Netflix specials In Trouble and Glitter Room first, where she has already covered similar subject matter in a more effective way, than diving straight into this uneven sitcom.
The Duchess is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.