Here’s why Netflix’s ‘The Duchess’ is an absolute hot mess
Katherine Ryan can be a bit of an acquired taste. The Canadian comedian has a sharp tongue and even sharper eye for controversial material, as proven by her 2019 special Glitter Room. Unfortunately, the sophistication that balanced out Ryan’s standup is nowhere to be found in her revolting Netflix series The Duchess.
The Duchess follows Katherine (Ryan), a single mother who spends every waking moment making life difficult for those around her. She mocks those with disabilities, bullies her daughter’s schoolmates, and endlessly badgers her ex-boyfriend to get her pregnant, despite being in a relationship with a masochistic dentist.
Katherine is an example of the comedic antihero, which is a trope that audiences have seen masterfully depicted in shows like Fleabag and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. She just so happens to be a terrible example. The Duchess is, quite simply, one of the most tasteless and consistently unfunny shows that Netflix has ever financed.
The Duchess operates on the basis that saying something “shocking” is the same as saying something “funny,” and it runs this belief so far into the ground that it borders on desensitizing. Watching all six episodes is tantamount to sitting with the most unlikeable person you can find and paying them to insult you for the better part of a day.
Most of the show’s flaws stem from Ryan’s central performance. She leans into the character’s awful traits without offering a single glimpse of decency or hope for change. This persona is a logical extension of Ryan’s cutthroat standup material, but it doesn’t translate to a compelling or even competent protagonist. We aren’t told why Katherine behaves despicably, so we don’t care.
Each episode is crammed with instances of Katherine behaving abhorrently towards others. She sends nudes to a rival’s husband in an attempt to ruin their marriage, threatens to take sandpaper to Shep’s genitals, and relentlessly invokes anal sex when she’s in public spaces. It’s all meant to push the envelope in terms of comedy, but it comes off like a transparent attempt at masking the lack of genuinely clever writing.
Crass vs. clever
The very first episode sees Katherine walk her daughter to school while she’s dressed in a sweater that refers to her “small” genitalia. It’s a jaw-dropping display of bad taste, but rather than bring attention to the joke or attempt to develop it in a way that’s actually humorous, it’s forgotten about. The Duchess throws lots of content at the wall and none of it manages to stick. They’re as disposable as the expletives that Katherine dishes out.
Occasionally, The Duchess tries to compose itself and deliver a moment of sincerity. Katherine entertains the possibility of adoption and sits down with a case worker to discuss her qualifications. She makes a useless remark about wanting a baby “whatever the age or drug problem,” but for the most part, the scene feels legitimate, as though the character has relented and exposed her true self.
It’s spoiled right away. The case worker turns Katherine down for adoption, and the character reverts back to her cruel, detestable ways. “Adoption was only my last resort anyway,” she explains. “Eat a d–k; I’ll stick with the kid I’ve got and you can keep your secondhand crack babies.” The ruthless nature of the joke feels completely at odds with the rest of the scene, resulting in a tonal mess.
Ryan has already begun to discuss possibilities for season 2 of The Duchess, but we hope that the onslaught of negative reviews from fans & critics are enough to prevent such a thing. Netflix has yet to renew the show, and we cannot fathom why they would consider doing so.
The Duchess is now streaming on Netflix.