You know how it is. You’re a high-fashion feminist potter and single mother who decides to have a second child with a former boyband member who lives on a barge, while lying about it to your dentist lover and using naked selfies to blackmail your rival alpha mums at the school gates. Relatable, right?
So goes the outlandish yet somehow semi-autobiographical set-up of Canadian comic Katherine Ryan’s debut sitcom The Duchess (Netflix). Some of the six-part series is outrageously funny. Parts are bracingly mould-breaking. Sadly, the whole thing is something of a distasteful failure.
As well as writing and executive-producing the show, Ryan plays a fictionalised version of herself called, wait for it, Katherine Ryan (have comedy creators given up trying to come up with character names?), a thirtysomething who runs a chic pottery business called Kiln 'Em Softly. See what she did there?
With her biological clock tick-tocking and nine-year-old daughter Olive (Kate Byrne) demanding a sibling, Katherine is torn between two men: her soppy, bafflingly tolerant boyfriend Dr Evan (Australian comedian Steen Raskopoulos) and Olive’s father Shep (Rory Keenan), a washed-up pop star who’s in thrall to conspiracy theories and lives off-grid.
Katherine was once a groupie to his chillingly plausible boy band Tru-Sé. After a drunken one-night stand, she discovered she was pregnant. Shep ended up in rehab and lost his record deal. Now the estranged couple hate each other – a fact of which we’re reminded at wearyingly regular intervals.
With Evan too clingy and fertility clinics freaking her out, Katherine decides the best option to father another child is her feckless ex – because, against the odds, the first one turned out well. This plotline never convinces but becomes the driving narrative of the series.
Like many sitcoms, the opening episode is the weakest, labouring to establish the characters and set the tone. Katherine comes over as a spoilt bully and, at the school gates, sports a sweatshirt distractingly emblazoned with the slogan “World’s Smallest Pussy”.
Things pick up and the show hits its stride mid-series. Yet unforgivable missteps keep tripping it up. There’s a bizarre sequence at a “body positivity conference” which has been edited to the point of illogicality. The series ends as poorly as it began, with a melodramatic wedding.
In between comes a painfully drawn-out adoption sequence in which the show reaches its nadir. Katherine approaches an adoption agency on a whim, demanding a baby. When they dare question her motives, she launches into a foul-mouthed tirade. Rich, white Katherine tells the black case worker to “eat a d---”, insults her personal hygiene and sneers “keep your secondhand crack babies”. It's misjudged and deeply uncomfortable.
Ryan’s determination to be daring soon wears thin. She throws around insults and drops the C-bomb with alacrity. There are endless references to oral and anal sex, plus a pair of explicit raunchy scenes. It’s shocking for the sake of it.
In some ways, however, The Duchess is a breath of fresh air. Most middle-class parenting comedies these days are populated by downtrodden women who guzzle white wine and whinge about how tired they are. Ryan’s approach is empowering and celebratory, making The Duchess the anti-Motherland.
Katherine absolutely adores her child, arguably too much. “I don’t need a break from Olive,” she snaps when a friend offers to babysit. “I actually like her.” It’s clear that Olive is the best thing in her chaotic life. Katherine’s problems are her own, rather than blamed on the strains of parenthood. She is, as Ryan admits, “a bad person who’s a good mom”.
This brings us to the vexed issue of our heroine’s “likeability” – a standard often applied to female characters in comedy. The problem isn’t so much that Katherine is unlikeable – she’s spiky and selfish, sure, but a pussycat beneath – but that there’s nobody at all to root for. The men are weak, the children are dreadful, just about every supporting character is unpleasant. The script can’t even decide whether Katherine is heroine or villain.
Another major flaw is the character of Olive. She’s a precocious brat and frankly, it’s no wonder. Her mother treats her like an adult best friend, so she tries to act like one, resulting in swearing and smart-aleckery. Dialogue jolts and jars unnaturally – partly because Ryan isn’t an actor, partly because other characters are made to talk with her rhythms. Many lines would be more suited to Ryan’s stand-up act. Smack the Pony veteran Doon Mackichan arrives halfway through the series as Shep’s new love interest and acts everyone else off the screen.
One of many frustrations with The Duchess is that you feel there’s a far better sitcom inside it, fighting to get out. It has intermittent killer lines but lacks coherence and heart. There are fleeting glimpses of a War of the Roses-style divorce farce or a sweet mother-and-daughter comedy, albeit one with a less dysfunctional dynamic.
Instead what we’re left is a loud, mildly amusing mess.
The Duchess is available on Netflix from today