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Katherine Ryan is a Mom Behaving Badly in Netflix's The Duchess

Though not yet fully baked, Netflix's new britcom about an unapologetic single mom trying to have another kid is raunchy and occasionally heartwarming.
  • Katherine Ryan and Kate Byrne in The Duchess. (Netflix)
    Katherine Ryan and Kate Byrne in The Duchess. (Netflix)

    If you follow stand-up comedy on Netflix, you may already be familiar with Katherine Ryan from her specials "In Trouble" and "Glitter Room." If you're British, there's an even better chance you're familiar with the Canadian comic who's been a presence on British panel shows like 8 Out of 10 and QI for years now. This week Netflix debuts The Duchess, based on Ryan's stand-up comedy and her life as a single mother raising her daughter in London. The six-episode series follows Katherine (Ryan) and her daughter Olive (Kate Byrne) as they enjoy a close and loving relationship, while Katherine is an acerbic terror to nearly everyone else around her. But when Olive asks her mom for a sibling, Katherine — who at this point isn't particularly interested or in need of a man in her life — begins looking for options, and settles on her faded rock-star of an ex, Olive's father.

    From the opening moments, we get a good sense of the vibe Ryan is working here, as Katherine walks Olive to school, sharing smart-alecky conversation while she sports a "World's Smallest Pussy" sweatshirt. The Duchess wisely sidesteps the "mom is the daughter and daughter is the mom" tropes, but Katherine more than lives up to the "mom behaving badly" template, as when she barnstorms the other school moms for letting their kids bully Olive. As an expat Canadian living in London, there's some outsider comedy to be mined, but Katherine is neither naive nor bumbling as she operates within a foreign culture.

    Where the Katherine Ryan tornado most forcefully touches down is with her ex, Shep Knight (Rory Keenan, playing anthropomorphized morning wood as an ex-rocker who Katherine had sex with after a concert). Shep is gross, and his disdain for Katherine is only matched by hers for him. But Olive wants a sibling, and Katherine wants Olive to be happy, so the bulk of the series becomes this unfolding car wreck of negotiating a paternity pact with the worst man in the world. Fortunately, Keenan is tremendously charming, and Shep's lechery is in good balance with his other outre qualities, like extreme anti-government paranoia.

    There's also Steen Raskopoulos as Katherine's new, handsome dentist boyfriend who isn't drawn too perfectly but who obviously compares quite well to Shep, to the point where viewers may grow impatient wondering why Katherine doesn't just try to have a baby with him.

    If you've watched Ryan's comedy, a lot of The Duchess' beats will feel familiar — from Katherine's relationship with her ex (extreme hatred covered up whenever Olive's around), to her feelings about rival moms, to Olive blowing her mom's spot about how she lives her life (wine, lots of wine). The show also gets around to one small but crucial notion from Ryan's latest Netflix special, where she expresses that while she could care less about her prime child-bearing, man-attracting years wasting away, the expiration date she caresabout most is how long she has to spend these uncomplicated years with her daughter. This theme simmers on a back burner for most of the season before emerging in a truly affecting moment at a hair salon as both Katherine and Olive are hit with the realization that she's growing up.

    If there's a problem with the series, it's that those smaller moments of relatable humanity often struggle to emerge amid the sea of Ryan's bombastic personality, which in her comedy is calibrated with a delivery that sometimes undercuts and sometimes plays into her persona as a trashy but proudly strident single mom. In The Duchess, Ryan sometimes struggles to sharpen her comedic voice, and the result is her character blasting everybody else off the screen with the sheer force of her abrasive persona. It's a lot of volume, and the show could stand some fine tuning.

    That said, it's a likeable enough journey, with some intriguing high-concept moments, including an episode where Katherine fears that Shep and his new girlfriend are planning to "Handmaid's Tale" her into having their baby, and a season finale that feels like a lowkey tribute to boy-band music which blows the whole series budget on needle drops, and we're incredibly happy that they did. To this point, Ryan's stand-up and panel-show performances are probably still the better vessel for her comedy than The Duchess, but the series serves as a charming companion piece nonetheless.

    The Duchess drops on Netflix on September 11th.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Duchess, Netflix, Katherine Ryan