Last year, when I was pregnant with my son, all I wanted to watch were bad mom comedies. “Workin’ Moms,” “I’m Sorry,” “Odd Mom Out” and “The Letdown” were my primary indulgences, though the genre also encompasses shows like “SMILF” — sitcoms and dramedies starring women whose lives revolve around their young children but who chafe at being hemmed in by conventional motherhood. They make inappropriate comments in mom groups and get side-eyed by their normie peers. They wear too much black or too little makeup. They’re moms with no filter, with edgy vocabularies and wardrobes. They dare to prioritize their careers or sex lives. They experience their role of being a mother — at least according to society’s view of what motherhood is — as restraining or demoralizing or depressing, and yet they love their children fiercely.
Almost universally, these women are wealthy and white, and they work in either creative or corporate fields. They have aspirations for themselves that seem at odds with a life spent doing school runs in yoga pants. Comedies thrive on this sort of tension — a picture-perfect attachment mommy may make good Instagram content, but she wouldn’t make much of a sitcom star. The richest veins of comedy in these shows come from this negotiation of the distance between the roles that privileged white women aspire to occupy: nurturing earth mama vs. brassy feminist badass; stay-at-home madonna vs. corporate girl boss.
Women of my generation know that having it all is an impossible lie. As I awaited my firstborn, I craved what these shows offered: a more honest assessment of the madcap collision of priorities that awaited me, and enough humor to keep me from disappearing beneath my covers — and my growing belly — until the onset of labor. And often, sneakily, I found that these shows brought me right back to the comforting promise that you could be a working mom, a stylish mom, a mom with a snide sense of humor and a distaste for PTA meetings, and still be the best mom, all the more loving and loved by your children because of your fierce individuality.
It’s a depiction of motherhood that, as I have spent my son’s entire brief life staring at him and absentmindedly wiping his saliva off of my shoulder while squeezing in brief increments of work time, now seems more escapist than plausible. I haven’t worn red lipstick since last year, and almost every moment I spend working is a moment my baby spends stuck in his playpen with an assortment of balls. Reconciling motherhood with being an Instagrammable, ambitious individual has never seemed more distant.
So “The Duchess,” a new Netflix series created by and starring U.K.-based Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan, arrives at an odd moment — not that this is any fault of the show. Ryan plays Katherine, a successful ceramicist with a foul mouth and a closet full of bejeweled statement headbands. She is the single mom to a 9-year-old daughter, Olive (Katy Byrne), the result of a fling with Shep (Rory Keenan). At the time, Shep was a suave boy band star (the last to get up off the stool, Katherine explains). Now, he’s a survivalist Brexiteer who lives on a dilapidated boat and routinely forgets Olive’s birthday.
While shows about married moms often find tension in the disappointments of the nuclear family, “The Duchess” finds it in the enviable upsides of solo parenting. Ryan’s character makes parenthood — and the single life — look temptingly glam. She dates casually, wears expert makeup and designer dresses, decorates her flat in blush and misty blue hues, and treats her even-tempered daughter as a mini audience for her profane riffs. Several episodes in, I found myself idly daydreaming of a husband-free home papered in florals and rose gold, as Ryan has described her real-life apartment.
Like many shows about the challenges of parenthood, “The Duchess” is based on Ryan’s own life as a London-based Canadian single mom of a daughter. Bits from her 2019 Netflix special, “Glitter Room,” have been repurposed for “The Duchess,” including the opening dialogue between Katherine and Olive, in which Olive earnestly bemoans the dangers of immigration while they walk to school.
“The people coming into the country are you!” says Katherine, pointing out that Olive was born to an immigrant. “Take back control, Olive! Make Britain great again by cleaning your own room! I’m only doing the jobs you won’t do.”
When the show opens, Katherine’s life is exactly as she wants it to be. She lives in London with her doted-upon daughter and co-runs Kiln ’Em Softly, a trendy ceramics studio specializing in millennial pink minimalist vases shaped like the feminine figure, with her friend Bev (Michelle de Swarte). She has a boyfriend, Evan (Steen Raskopoulos), a sweetly forgettable dentist who occupies her free time on weekends. During the pilot, he asks to take her and Olive out one night for Olive’s birthday. He wants to be part of her family, he says.
“You are a part of this family,” Katherine responds sweetly. “An important, peripheral part!”
She and her daughter have a bevy of lap dogs and a pastel-hued flat, and though she and Shep loathe each other, they have managed — despite practically hissing obscenities at each other whenever they meet — to gull their little girl into believing that they deeply admire and even still love each other.
But Olive wants a sister, and Katherine, more than happy to have another baby, is prepared to disrupt her life in order to make that happen. Anxious to avoid another toxic co-parent, she nixes Evan as an option and focuses on a more viable alternative: sperm donation, preferably from her ex. (If she could “take [his] garbage cum and turn it into a princess” once, Katherine reasons, why not twice?)
Despite their myriad flaws and mutual disdain, Katherine and Shep are adoring parents. This is their redemption, though for Katherine, it’s also an excuse. She’s a bad mom with confidence in her own good momming, especially when she’s gleefully hurting other people in order to give her daughter a flawless life. One thread of the first episode, based on another bit lifted from “Glitter Room,” features Katherine dealing with Olive’s bully by confronting the girl’s prim mother, Jane (Sophie Fletcher). When Jane suggests that maybe Katherine could get more involved with the PTA, Katherine retorts, “Maybe I could fuck your man!” She whips around and heads off after demanding that Jane teach her daughter, Millie, about empathy, exclaiming with mingled self-congratulation and fury, “It is not that hard to be a decent fucking mom!” When Millie continues to harass Olive, Katherine escalates, planting actual nude photos of herself on Jane’s husband’s desk.
In short, while misfit moms in comedies are often pretty good moms and nice people who are overwhelmed by work, the rigors of parenthood and their incompatibility with the moms they’re expected to socialize with, Katherine is a confident, happy asshole of a mom. Her serene belief that she’s a good parent allows her to float through a life filled with casual cruelty toward anyone standing in her way. “The Duchess” almost seems determined to win the arms race of edgy mom comedy, piling on outrageously dickish behavior from its obliviously self-satisfied anti-heroine.
There’s something satisfying about this, a commitment to exploring the chasm between actual human personalities and the demure mom archetype. How bad can someone be and still be a basically good mom? Let’s push the limits! Yet, these moments are oftentimes the biggest misfires, giving Ryan too much opportunity to chew the scenery, stand-up comedy-style, rather than act and react as a character in conversation with others. Her quasi-monologues and arm-waving harangues of her enemies are more exhausting than funny, hammered home with the deadpan force of a bit rather than an interpersonal conflict. It’s in the subtler moments, her low-key snarkfests with Bev and Olive and her offhanded dismissals of Evan’s thirst for commitment, that provide more genuine laughs and a more appealing side of Ryan as an actor, using her comedic timing to optimal effect.
The show’s brief and action-packed first season, which chronicles Katherine’s bull-in-a-china-shop mission to make Olive a sibling and her half-assed attempt to make a relationship work with Evan, often fumbles its key scenes. But the question it’s asking — how bad of a person can you be while still being a good mom? — is confronted more frankly in it than in many conversations about bad moms, who often turn out to be normal people doing their best. Sometimes what a good comedy demands is a genuine asshole, and “The Duchess” is tantalizingly close to fitting the bill.