‘The Duchess’ Review: A surprisingly laughless affair

Katherine Ryan’s Netflix series ‘The Duchess’ lacks some vital ingredients for a comedy: wit, intelligence and likeable characters

Starring Katherine Ryan, Rory Keenan, Katy Byrne, Steen Raskopoulos, Michelle de Swarte, Sophie Fletcher, and Doon Mackichan

I would like to preface this by pointing out that I am actually a huge fan of Katherine Ryan’s work. Her standup material, such as ‘Glitter Room’, which was released on Netflix in 2019, is brilliantly timed, witty and entertaining. The anecdotes and quips she gives about her massively precocious, British daughter are hilarious in the way that she is portrayed as a sort of unspeakably wise and well-mannered member of Downton Abbey. Unfortunately, writing a stand up routine, and writing a television programme just aren’t the same thing, and never has it been more obvious that here. Unless a programme is taking the route of talking directly to the audience, as in ‘Miranda’, there really can’t be that sort of ranting about a particular topic or making many wry observations. Ultimately, TV comedy has to work a great deal harder, and be a great deal cleverer, than an expletive-driven rant.

Katherine Ryan’s daughter as appears in ‘The Duchess’ (not her real life daughter, I hasten to add, but portrayed by Katy Byrne) is less a source of amusement and more a cause for concern. The dynamic between the pair becomes a sort of toxic Gilmore Girls, where it’s honestly uncertain which one is the parent. Olive comes across as incredibly precocious, headstrong and rude, who is utterly unable to be controlled by her mother or enforce any sort of boundaries. It therefore makes a great deal of the drama that revolves around Olive unpleasurable to watch simply because the audience are not made to care for her.

Similarly, Katherine is pretty much irredeemable. Her sole focus is herself and her daughter, and she entirely neglects the needs of those around her, including shutting out her incredibly patient, stable and loving boyfriend (Evan, played by Steen Raskopoulos) from any decision within her life, even very large and important ones such as getting pregnant again. She even goes to lengths of seeking her layabout ex Shep (Rory Keenan), Olive’s father, to have sex to produce another child, all while blithely unaware that Evan should have any sort of knowledge of this happening.

If this was one of the larger points of the series, in mining deeper into Katherine and Olive’s issues and her own inability to grow up, then it might be something that you can appreciate a little bit more, but the show seems woefully unaware, even unapologetic that these flaws exist, and continue to frame Katherine’s Uber-bitch attitude as “comedy”. Unfortunately, it just isn’t funny to follow the narrative of a woman who persistently alienates those around her, and thinks it appropriate to wear a T-shirt to the school gates emblazoned “World’s Smallest Pussy”. Alas, dropping swear words into every other line, and aggressively talking about penis and vagina at a moment’s notice just isn’t the sort of nuanced, multi-layered comedy that British audiences, at least, have been used to, in the wake of brilliant comedies such as “Feel Good”, “Miranda” and “Fleabag”. Even American comedies, in fact, such as “Schitt’s Creek” and “The Good Place” manage to use character’s quirks as a source of comedy and undergo meaningful character development in a much more successful way that we see it performed here.

Katherine throughout the programme just goes around being mean and unpleasant to anybody, framing it as some sort of victory that she would slide nude photos of herself into the hands of somebody else’s husband, all because of a dispute on the playground gates. It seems an odd point of self congratulation throughout. Even though Katherine is persistently rash, rude and loud, she is always shown as being in the right. Almost as if she’s the only person in the world who has the balls and the courage to say what everybody else is thinking. Even Evan, seemingly the only normal character in the show, is eventually proven to be in the wrong against Katherine and her principles.

Ultimately, it’s just not a clever or amusing comedy. Turning the word dyslexic into dicks-lexic is nothing other than puerile and vulgar. That’s not because I disapprove of the word dick, but unfortunately it’s just not a word that’s amusing in itself. Especially not when referring to a pre-teen child.

The mother-daughter relationship demonstrated here is criminally far from being touching or emotional, instead just toxic and co-dependent, in which Olive demands everything and it is granted to her without ever being properly addressed by the narrative. The one small section that comes close is when she goes to a hairdressers and wants to sit in a child’s chair and the pair have to confront the idea that she’s growing up. Even this small mite of emotion doesn’t actually make up for a flawed dynamic throughout in which Olive actually demonstrates her emotional maturity over her mother, who has spent the vast majority of the programme up until this point trying to get her ex to cum into her hands in a misguided attempt to get Olive a perfect sibling.

Saying something shocking, unexpected, crude or inappropriate is light years away from being a funny contribution. Not laughing at a sweatshirt emblazoned with “World’s Smallest Pussy” is not a case of British prudishness, as Katherine tries to paint it, but instead some sort of sociopathic lack of understanding of social norms. Talking continually about your vagina as if body parts are somehow inherently hilarious seems to be some sort of trip back into adolescence. A man wandering on screen aggressively talking about his penis and planting nude photos for somebody else to find would be seen as aggressive, inappropriate, and sexual harassment. To reclaim this idea is not subversive, witty or clever, but rather wearisome, and the show just doesn’t mature past this base level of humour throughout.

The Duchess is available to endure watch now on Netflix

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