Four hundred years ago in media terms – which is to say, about 12 – Julie Burchill pointed out the dearth of bitches in the modern cultural landscape. The magnificent hellions who had once abounded in film and high society in the 1950s had been reduced to poor shadows – scraps of things without the impregnable self-confidence, resilience and bracing indifference to the opinions of others (men) to slay a dinner party with a one-liner, speak truth to penis, and generally slash and burn their way enjoyably through life, armed with nothing more than attitude and wit as sharp as their stilettos.
I had hopes, early on in standup comedian Katherine Ryan’s new Netflix sitcom (her first), The Duchess, that we might finally have found their successor. A new Eve, if you will – albeit one who wouldn’t wait for the snake’s permission to eat any goddamn fruit she fancied. In the show she plays Katherine, a single mother and pottery maker (and head of her own company Kiln’Em Softly, which is the kind of half-pun that makes me want to smash things, and so may be very good for business). She is a force of nature who blasts through life and any unfortunate bystanders without a care for any emotional or other detritus she may leave in her wake.
Her only point of weakness/sign of humanity (delete according to taste – and your preference may change as the series goes on) is her love for her daughter, Olive, who is the result of a brief liaison with former boyband member Shep (Rory Keenan) when she was a young groupie. He is still around for half-arsed co-parenting duties but is essentially useless, though he has managed to “beat syphilis – twice!”
Katherine is dating Shep’s antithesis – a lovely, stable, kind man called Evan (Steen Raskopoulos) whom she keeps at arm’s length but who wants to become more than “your Saturday guy”. She assures him that he is part of the family. “An important, peripheral part of the family.” The main throughline of the series is Katherine working out whether she should have the second baby she wants via sperm donor, despite her fertility doctor’s reluctance (“I’m only 33, and IT looks 16,” she tells him); Evan (even though she barely wants to go out for dinner with him); or Shep, on the grounds that loser though he be they have form in the mutual production of excellent kids.
There’s a lot to like in The Duchess, not least the furious flow of jokes and unapologetic tone of it all (and of Katherine in particular). Proper retro-bitch points are due. The downsides are that the jokes are often at the expense of character and plot – there is little to invest in and the component parts never quite cohere. This lack is aggravated by the high proportion of parts played by standups – a demographic not known for ensemble playing and who never quite lose their self-awareness to make the situation parts of the com work. There are heavy-handed moments throughout – Katherine and her best friend and co-potter Beth being interviewed on a TV talk show by a presenter blithely passing judgment on their respective relationships and families during the third episode stands out.
Katherine herself too often steps across the line from bitch to simple sociopath. Referring to Olive’s minor nemesis Milly as “a tasteless little ditchpig” and her relentless hostility to almost everyone who crosses her path takes a wearying toll on the viewer after a while. A little more light and shade would work wonders and still not take it anywhere near Motherland territory, or lead it to be mistaken for any of the other assorted other “mums-go-mad!” offerings that make you wish for Joan Crawford to be reborn and show us all how it should be done.