TV Viewpoint: Defending the Guilty and The Duchess

Barristers and Potters behaving badly in two very different sitcoms

Added to RTE Two’s bill on Thursday night is a BBC import set in the disheartening world of criminal law. It’s a sort-of comedy in the vein of TV shows created by comedians wanting to show their range like Uncle and Josh, that would balk at a laugh track and be scandalised by the mere suggestion of a catch-phrase.

It centres on eager, puppyish pupil Will and his world-weary pupil-master Caroline, as they gun for loopholes and mistrials in the battle to release the guilty back in to society and prove that the law is all about putting forward the best case.

As with all comedies of this kind, there are worse foes than the criminals lurking in the background, namely Will’s peers and the class system at work. Most of those working in the department are not social justice crusaders, but mostly Oxbridge educated, toffee-nosed snobs of the highest order, with the complete lack of awareness of anything outside of their own echo-chamber that you might also find in Dublin-centric politicians.

Will Sharpe and Katherine Parkinson in Defending the Guilty

The snobbery and condescension is all played for laughs with a wink to the Guardian-reading target audience, but its The Thick of It pretensions don’t quite land, probably because in sending up the bumbling half-wits that rule the land, it indicates that it really is about connections in getting there in the first place, and the ruthless cunning that keeps you there. Which is more tragedy than comedy, to me.

Maybe it’s because I watched it in a slightly desultory mood that I found it all a bit more depressing than cheekily funny, especially the rivalry between two awful pupils and Will and his friend Danielle, a woman with a Northern English accent to hint at her working-class origins.

It’s not that it wasn’t humorous, smart and knowing in many places, and Will Sharpe, playing Will, brings a certain school-boy charm to proceedings, and prevents the whole thing descending into total nastiness. But generally it fails to muster the sympathy required for the trainee barristers, and without even a smidge of empathy for the characters, what’s the point in watching?

Speaking about comedians starring in their own self-penned sitcoms, all six episodes of The Duchess was released on to Netflix last Friday. Created by Katherine Ryan, in time honoured tradition this new comedy is a liberally semi-autobiographical story, of a single mother raising her daughter in London while making headway in a creative business.

Here she is a potter and co-owner of the cleverly named Kiln me Softly, living in an improbably enormous and luxuriously furnished house. Her attire is at one instance described by her ex-boyfriend (and father of her child) as “art dealer’s widow”, which is accurate, as she turns up to for the school run in sequins and tulle.

Ryan is known her appearing on panel shows and for her stand-up, setting herself apart by her glamorous appearance and unexpectedly filthy brand of humour. The Duchess is an extension of that; it’s thoroughly crude and even lewd, but the addition of the daughter and more grounded characters like her business partner, softens the overall atmosphere.

Katherine Ryan and Kate Byrne in The Duchess

This first foray into acting can’t be said to widen the comedian’s range, and some of her lines could be delivered more authentically, but she shines when she is required to switch between doting mum protecting her daughter and admonishing her feckless ex who has forgotten their child’s birthday.

The father is a one-time boyband member who lives on a houseboat, and the interactions between the two are peppered with creative insults. Katherine (in another instance of characters’ names echoing the actors’ who play them) is seeing a friendly, steady dentist who only wants to give her and her daughter stability.

His rudeness to a waiter raised alarm bells for me – maybe he’s not such a nice guy after all, considering that that is a benchmark on which to rate decency – so his capability as a father figure will need to be proven.

The Duchess is quite fun, and warmer than it might have been in other hands. It remains to be seen whether it will reach such heights as other female led comedies like Aisling Bea’s This Way Up or Roisin Conaty’s GameFace, or indeed all of Sharon Horgan’s oeuvre, but judging from the first episode, there’s definitely potential.

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