“The Duchess” Doesn’t Quite Rule –Yet



Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan built a stand-up and panel show career around her life as a single mother in London. It was only a matter of time, really, before she mined it into a television show. “The Duchess,” which she created, wrote, executive produced, and starred in, premiered on Netflix on Sept. 11.

In “The Duchess,” Katherine runs a pottery business dedicated to making recreations of the female body alongside her best friend, Bev (Michelle de Swarte). The two met when they both had flings with members of a since-disbanded boy band. Both became pregnant around the same time, but while Bev married bandmate Tom (Anwar Lynch) and has since had more children with him, Katherine and Shep (Rory Keenan) are bitter rivals who only pretend to get along for the sake of their daughter, Olive (Katy Byrne). Rounding out the main cast are Jane (Sophie Fletcher), an overbearing mother Katherine frequently butts heads with; Katherine’s kept-at-arm’s-length boyfriend Evan (Steen Raskopoulos); and Shep’s new fiancée Cheryl (Doon Mackichan), who is all-too-eager to be part of Olive and Katherine’s life.

The show opens on Olive’s ninth birthday, and she’s decided she wants a sibling. Katherine goes to a fertility clinic, where the doctor tells her that, at her age, the only way she could have a successful pregnancy would be if she used the sperm of a much younger man. Understandably grossed out by the idea, she puts it to bed, briefly.

After Bev survives a pulmonary embolism as a result of liposuction, Olive makes Katherine realize that if she had children from two different fathers, they would likely be separated in the event of her death, which means she only has one option: Have another child with Shep.

The six-episode series is tightly paced, and each thirty-minute episode covers a lot of ground without it being overwhelming. Some jokes, like the whole Jane subplot, are pulled directly from Ryan’s past stand-up career, including her two Netflix specials “In Trouble” (2017) and “Glitter Room” (2019). However, I can say from having followed a lot of her career that “The Duchess” still has its own flavor; while distinctly Ryan, it’s set apart from her past work.

Katherine is a distinctly difficult character to empathise with. She makes a lot of questionable decisions.

I will admit the series has not gotten great reviews, and, having watched it, it’s easy to see why. Katherine is a distinctly difficult character to empathise with. She makes a lot of questionable decisions. One involves sending inappropriate pictures of herself to Jane’s husband, Brian, in an attempt to anger Jane. She never apologizes for it, even though Jane fishes for it for several episodes.

While the joke that Ryan would steal Jane’s husband is funny in her stand-up specials, it’s another thing to see someone say it to another person and have it be something we’re meant to root for. There are some moments throughout the show where Katherine is called out for her behavior, but there are definitely not enough of them.

The most obvious example is the season finale. Throughout the whole season, Katherine struggles with how to let Evan into her life. Her plans to have a baby with someone other than him catch him completely off-guard, and after the initial fertility clinic plan falls through, she doesn’t bring it up to him again. He finds out from Shep that she met up with him in hopes of getting pregnant, lying to Evan about where she was in the process, and it leads to Evan breaking up with her. At the end of the next episode, the two reconcile and all looks well.

Except Katherine did actually get pregnant by Shep, and Evan finds out from Jane at Shep and Cheryl’s wedding. He explodes, again, and leaves, but not before yelling at Olive about how her parents are putting on a show in front of her, and Katherine tells him off for speaking to her child like that. The episode ends with the happy family reunited months later when Katherine has the baby, Evan nowhere in sight. The moment vilifies Evan and praises Katherine, when they both did kind of awful things, and Katherine’s was definitely worse.


Herein lies the problem of adapting a stage persona for television. Ryan’s persona is not on the same level of Stephen Colbert’s Republican persona in “The Colbert Report,” but comedians embellish and twist and rewrite reality for their specials. You laugh at the jokes because it is funny to think of something going down that way, or someone actually saying that, and just because the comedian said it happened that way doesn’t mean it did.

Actually seeing them play out, though, is a different story. Ryan freely admits that she twists things when writing her jokes, especially facts about others for confidentiality purposes. But it’s embedded into Katherine the character that she makes these choices, like taking her daughter out to a bar on a school night in order to see Evan and make him jealous.

If “The Duchess” gets a second season, it needs to fully commit to letting Katherine grow. The show clearly establishes how Shep practically abandoned her while pregnant, broke, and alone in a foreign country, and it’s given her a lot of trust and insecurity issues, but it’s used more to handwave questionable actions than anything else. There’s a moment in one episode where it seems like Katherine’s going to realize Olive isn’t the perfect girl she thought and address it, but they don’t commit to it. With the new family dynamics of a now-married Shep, two new babies one Shep and Katherine’s, one Shep and Cheryl’s and Olive entering her pre-teens, it’s the perfect time to commit to each character growing up in their own ways.