Katherine Ryan’s new Netflix NFLX semi-autobiographical comedy The Duchess puts a twist on the typical love story. The London-based Canadian comedian may be new to many stateside but she’s well-known across the pond for her brash, in-your-face style.
Many love her wit while some find her offensive and the reviews have thus far been a mixed bag with some of the negative takes sounding downright angry. But here’s the thing, comedians are famous for taking things to the edge of the line and then crossing right over it. Andrew Dice Clay comes to mind and when this comes from a man, it is somehow excusable and tolerable. Ryan, 37, makes no apologies, nor does she intend to back down or edit herself.
The Duchess is Ryan’s debut scripted series, in which she writes, stars and executive produces. The six-episode comedy follows the powerful and problematic choices of a single mother living in London. Her world revolves around her greatest love, daughter Olive (played by Kate Byrne). Life takes a turn when she debates having a second child with her greatest enemy, Olive’s father Shep (Rory Keenan).
She describes her character, also named Katherine, as an unlikable person in many ways but one who is driven by her own version of logic. And though Olive’s parents are less than perfect, it’s abundantly clear they put her happiness and well-being first.
And, Ryan can relate to her as she, too, is a mother to daughter Violet. Now married, she was a single mother for a decade. It was this experience that served as the catalyst for her standup comedy. She has two specials on Netflix, including last year’s Glitter Room, which was an homage to single-motherhood.
Ryan described herself as an advocate for women in a recent phone interview. “I hope viewers will take the message from this show that we’re celebrating family in whatever shape it happens to come in. I love the idea that a woman in any position or situation can find love in an unconventional way and be empowered by that. I also believe a woman doesn’t need a man to be happy.”
She flipped the gender roles in The Duchess, portraying a commitment-phobic woman who consistently puts on the brakes in her relationship with an overly-eager and somewhat needy boyfriend Evan (Steen Raskopoulos). Borderline cruel to him at times, the two don’t get your typical happily-ever-after Hollywood ending. Their relationship is doomed the moment she tells him she’s going to have another baby, just not with him. Her daughter wants a sibling and since she had the perfect child with her inept ex, she plans to have another with him. Or, a sperm donor.
Ryan explains that this was never meant to be your typical romantic comedy or a fairytale. “The central relationship in this story was never Katherine and Evan, it was always Katherine and Olive. Ultimately, the boyfriend was nice and loved her but it wasn’t enough. She loved him too but I think she was really dead set on avoiding the crisis she had with her ex. She wasn’t willing to roll the dice again. We’ve all been in love but he wasn’t the right guy for her and I think the lesson here is that in the relationship that is wrong you can both be wrong. Katherine is better off dancing on her own. Some people may be disappointed by the ending but we’ve all been in love for two years and he was one of those.”
So, just how true-to-life is this show? “In my work I try to have the most authentic central truth about my own life and experiences that I can but I protect the people around me. So, when I talk about my daughter, it’s not entirely truthful. I embellish a lot and use creative license. I’m very transparent about myself and my shortcomings, though, and I also really exaggerate things.”
Her character’s desire to have a second child with the ex she loathes was made up for The Duchess but the concept was inspired by her situation at one time. “This is the reality a lot of women face when they approach 35. As I was forced to face the biological reality of my circumstances, things were similar. I was with a boyfriend I felt lukewarm about and I wondered if I should give my daughter a sibling. Then I thought about how I would do that.”
A few of the negative reviews specifically point out the episode wherein Katherine and Olive explore adoption. Her bold comments in the scene were offensive to some but in her case (and our interview was prior to the reviews coming out) she knew she wouldn’t be a good candidate. “I would not be a good option for adoption because I have this mouth and body of work,” she explained.
This led her to the option of using a sperm donor, which simply wasn’t for her. “It really creeped me out how young they all are. They’re like 25 years-old! They don’t tell us that.”
Women, she adds, are put into a pressure cooker by a certain age. “The reality is there’s this antiquated language and all this burden is put on women and I wanted to explore this but in a funny way. They panic women and tell us we better figure it out. The truth is, many women in their forties have had success with 20-year-old sperm.”
Ryan has advice for women. “If we were truly an equal society and the shoe were on other foot and the genders and biology were reversed and sperm stopped working in the forties, this issue would definitely be solved. It’s a tricky reality. I hated being reminded of my biology. It is an invasive question but we have to address it and you don’t need to be in a partnership necessarily to do that.”
Oh, and we can ditch the tropes women are expected to uphold including the societal expectations that we are supposed to be nice, happy with what we’re given, grateful for a man. Ryan concurs how uncomfortable an independent woman who isn’t always polite, who can be mean and still get what she wants, is for many and she’s fine with that. She doesn’t want to fit into any mold and as an advocate for single mothers the world over, she continues to do things her way.
“My idea that a family can come in any shape may threaten some people. I just wanted to make a show that celebrated families like mine,” she says. To hear more of her thoughts on motherhood and life in general, you can catch Ryan in her podcast, Telling Everybody Everything.
Rounding out the cast are Rory Keenan, Doon Mackichan, Michelle de Swarte and Sophie Fletcher. A second season is yet to be confirmed but if she gets the green light, Ryan says Katherine will face a new host of problems. “My daughter is 11 and in Britain, that’s high school. I’m already having early empty nest syndrome. It’s really hard for me. I think Olive is probably goth and out the door,” she laughs.