'Derry Girls' Is A Comedy Unlike Anything You've Ever Seen Before
In the smartly written six-episode Northern Irish sitcom a group of teens navigate life in the '90s during the Troubles.
Not much has been said here yet in the States about Derry Girls, Netflix's end-of-year addition to its streaming platform. And that's a total bummer as the Northern Irish comedy about five teens growing up in the '90s during the Troubles is one of the most smartly written series of the year.
In Derry Girls, scrunchies, denim jackets, the Cranberries, and Eurodance bangers like Whigfield's "Saturday Night" reign. The Northern Ireland setting, accents, and political climate may feel unfamiliar to American viewers, but its characters are easily recognizable. There's Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), the self-centered leader of the friend group, and her cousin Orla McCool (Louisa Harland), the dimwitted yet profound comic relief. They're friends with "the goodie two-shoes" Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan), "the rebel" Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell), and her English cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn).
Together the group feuds with the annoying prefect at Our Lady Immaculate College, they become accused of killing a 98-year-old nun, and navigate love, sex, and friendship. Typical teen stuff. In the season's most hilarious bit, they scheme to get out of a difficult history exam by claiming to see a Virgin Mary statue cry real tears. Those tears, however, are all thanks to Erin's presumed dead dog Toto, who is discovered relieving himself on the floor of the church's balcony directly above. It's the kind of horrific, jaw-dropping comedy you have to see to believe.
Beyond show creator Lisa McGee's perfectly cast series is impeccable writing (McGee penned the script herself). Each episode, which clocks in at roughly 20 minutes, creatively intertwines narratives and subplots while offering snapshots of daily life in Derry (the trip to the chip shop, a road trip across the border to the Republic). It's not hard to see why the six-episode series, which originally debuted in the U.K. on Channel 4 in January, is one of Northern Ireland's biggest series ever and received critical praise and picked up plenty of awards.
To fully appreciate Derry Girls, you have to understand the political climate of the time. For roughly 30 years, Northern Ireland was gripped by a sectarian conflict between an overwhelming Protestant majority who wanted to remain part of the UK (Unionists), and a Catholic minority who wanted to join the Republic of Ireland (Nationalists). The town of Derry was also the site of 1972's Bloody Sunday. By the early '90s, the violence of the Troubles had largely subsided, and the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 brought a welcomed end to the conflict. Twenty years later, however, the Troubles still continue to haunt the region.
But instead of focusing on the grim details, McGee offers a different view: Friends and family navigating life against a conflicted backdrop, "ordinary people in extraordinary times." In Derry Girls, a bridge bombing is seen as more of an inconvenience to those simply trying to make it to school and work. An escaped IRA man hiding in the trunk of the family car is turned into a comedic exploration of family dynamics at a roadside diner. Derry Girls reveals that even in times of conflict, life goes on.
In the final scene, Orla performs a step aerobics dance routine at the school's talent show and is joined by her friends on stage after she's ridiculed by her schoolmates. Back at home, Erin's parents learn from a TV news report that 12 people have been killed in a bombing. The friends, not knowing the news, keep dancing.
Watching Derry Girls, I can't help but think of the politically-divided, "extraordinary" times we're currently living in here in the United States. Our conflict may be different, but the lessons are the same. There is laughter and humor and strangeness beyond the madness. We're all just trying to get by.