In a scuzzy London alleyway, a 30-something blonde with a flat, whiny North American accent attempts to seduce a wiry bearded Irishman. “I’ll be frank,” she squeaks. “I came out here to suck your dick.” He responds enthusiastically. She asks him to “sign my tits,” which he accomplishes with a black marker. Soon, however, their flirting dissolves into revolting, decades-fermented insults.
Katherine (Katherine Ryan) and Shep (Rory Keenan) are role-playing their meet-cute, when he was a minor pop star and she was a forward fan, but their mutual enmity is getting in the way. He’s since calcified into a grimy conspiracy theorist and she’s now a raging virago. These hostile exes have tentatively agreed to make another baby together since their first accident grew into a lovely kid, but clinical sperm donation methods don’t work for anti-science Shep. So, she whips up her dress, bares her naked behind and bends over against a garbage can. “It’ll be like reversing onto a tampon,” she whimpers to herself. It all ends with Katherine begging him, repeatedly, to “cum into my hands!”
The scene is vile, caustic and unfunny, emblematic of a vile, caustic and unfunny TV series. In her semi-autobiographical Netflix comedy The Duchess — so named, seemingly, for the protagonist’s collection of bedazzled headbands — U.K.-based Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan stars as an aggressive and foul-mouthed single mom whose only goal in life is to please her 9-year-old peach of a daughter (whether it actually benefits the girl or not). Ryan’s unseasoned, petulant delivery combined with her character’s noxious, corrosive self-absorption make for a brain-shredding 6-episodes.
Katherine is the kind of woman who thinks wearing a sweater emblazoned with the words “Worlds Smallest Pussy” is a shrewd political statement. The type who itches, no matter how slight the provocation, to declare war on the other mothers at her daughter’s school. You see, she’s a “cool mum” and everyone else who isn’t young, prickly, stylish or acid-tongued can… do something unprintable here. When another parent blames her kid’s behavior on dyslexia, Katherine spits back, “Millie is dicks-lexic,” as though that were anything resembling a humorous retort.
Ten years ago, Canadian party girl Katherine got knocked up by a fading boy band warbler, resulting in little Olive (Katy Byrne), whose worse crime is that she thinks of herself as her mother’s life partner due to Katherine’s lack of boundaries. Olive insists her mom provide her a sibling who looks exactly like her, which the little girl creepily refers to as “my baby.” Suspicious of all romantic commitments, pathological misandrist Katherine refuses to start a family with her actual loving boyfriend, masochistic dentist Evan (Steen Raskopoulos), and instead chooses to procreate with the only man she can trust to at least remain consistent: her dirtbag ex.
Katherine and Shep trade increasingly foul, body horror-adjacent invectives throughout the season. She feeds off shocking people: Nothing is off the table (or particularly clever.) Whether it’s demonstrated via threatening to sandpaper her ex’s genitals, sending nudes to a rival’s husband to assert dominance or relentlessly invoking anal sex in public to embarrass her boyfriend, Katherine’s belligerence says little about “women’s anger” and everything about her narcissism.
The Duchess‘ raison d’être can be summed up as, “Guess what, a-holes! Women can be crass, too!” — an antiquated assertion that actually invalidates whatever “feminist” statement Ryan thinks she’s making by writing a show about female self-reliance. (What, exactly, is empowering about being some loser’s sperm receptacle?) Indeed, executive producer Ryan seems to believe that profanity is the joke itself. I’m no prude — not by a long shot — but expletives and obscenities should only heighten your material. They’re no substitute for wit.
The first three episodes are among the most excruciating I’ve seen all year, but The Duchess does improve in the second half of the season, when the narrative shifts focus from “Katherine v. Shep” to “Katherine + Olive.” Their filial codependence is the jewel of the series, revealing a narrative TV rarely examines with nuance: the tyranny of the only child. Genial Olive has no idea she’s a monster created by a lonely parent who acquiesces to any anxious whim.
This includes Olive expecting to sleep in her mother’s bed at all times, requesting the master bedroom in a new house and accompanying her mother to the fertility clinic with a list of demands. In the series’ most genuinely moving moment, Olive receives her first grownup haircut while planted in a car-shaped kiddie chair at the salon, the girl clutching the pretend wheel while simultaneously grasping womanhood.
At its worst, The Duchess is a disastrous Catastrophe copycat. At its best, it’s a deranged mother-daughter love story. But nothing can erase the stink lines radiating off this alleyway dumpster.
Cast: Katherine Ryan, Katy Byrne, Rory Keenan, Steen Raskopoulos, Doon Mackichan, Michelle de Swarte, Sophie Fletcher
Creator: Katherine Ryan
Premieres: Friday, September 11 (Netflix)