She may retain a certain amount of anonymity in the States, but the Canadian-born British comedian Katherine Ryan is no unknown quantity. For years she’s been a staple on British comedy panel shows (the thriving tradition we unfortunately don’t really partake in over here), and tours regularly. Her stateside profile will no doubt be bolstered by the Netflix special In Trouble, which takes no chances, hanging an enormous photo of Ryan captioned with her name behind her, as if to constantly remind us who we clicked on in order to watch comedy.
Still, In Trouble starts off strong in its own way, with Ryan sticking mostly to crowd work, giving us the impression that In Trouble wants to replicate the average experience of being at a Katherine Ryan show—a move that starts us off a little slow, but is still a refreshing change of pace from over-edited and endlessly tweaked comedy specials that typically place that material a little later in the set or cut it out altogether. Insofar as In Trouble introduces us to Ryan’s general perspective and vibe, it does well. Ryan manages to balance being a single mother with an incredibly successful stand-up career; it’s immensely satisfying to hear her take down other women who try to pressure her into a life just like theirs, a pressure seldom applied to men. Asking someone to lose weight, she says, is basically asking someone to take up less space in case a man wants to golf there.
But the special soon goes off the rails as Ryan takes an increasingly imprecise approach to social commentary. Bits unpacking Bill Cosby’s rape allegations or mocking Taylor Swift—including several weird, unnecessary potshots at Lena Dunham—take on the shape and form of shock-enlightenment comedy without any of the nutrients. The special, clearly recorded before the election, feels unfortunately dated, with playful jabs at Donald Trump feel inappropriate in a world grows less playful by the day. More disturbing is her impersonation of Nicki Minaj as the “mammy” archetype, in the service of a heavy-handed point about white privilege—a joke that, unfortunately, is not In Trouble’s only problematic joke about race.
As a result, this special is an underhand pitch right down the middle. Much of Ryan’s material shoots for provocation but lands in empty provocation. One joke ends up comparing serial rape to wearing a fur coat, a metaphor which makes little sense but tastes sour anyway. At its worst, In Trouble seems aimed to become a series of shared Facebook video clips captioned “This Comedian Just DESTROYED ________,” but doesn’t say anything, just gesticulates wildly in the direction of some greater point.
Katherine Ryan is funny. In Trouble is, at times, funny. I just wish, with Ryan’s obvious talents, it had set its ambitions a little higher.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.