Review: Derry Girls

Obviously, late to this particular party, but good gods is Derry Girls an incredibly amazing show. Derry Girls is a British sitcom, created and written by Lisa McGee, that ran for three seasons across nineteen episodes on Channel 4 from January 2018 till May 2022. The series was slightly autobiographical in nature as it was inspired by McGee’s own experiences growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland during the last years of the Troubles. It starred Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Louisa Harland, Nicola Coughlan, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, and Dylan Llewellyn as five teenagers living in mid-1990s Derry attending a fictional all girls Catholic secondary school (high school for American readers) based in large part on McGee’s own background and schooling experience. While the stories of Derry Girls are fictional, many of the events that transpire during its run are real and archival footage and audio is used throughout the series to highlight actual major events and turning points. Yet, it is not a series or treatise about war or conflict, at least, not entirely because the majority of the show simply revolves around a group of teenage girls and the one guy friend living their lives, discovering themselves, dealing with parents and adults, and the basic acts of just growing up. Albeit, under odd circumstances.

Genuinely, the main lead Erin (played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson) is a bit of a twat but in that classic teenage lead sense of wanting adventure and to be the Main Character without realizing, or admitting, that they are kind of just a nobody like everyone else. She has dreams of being a writer/storyteller, but isn’t very good at it lacking experience and a genuine voice. Her friends fill out the rest of the expected roles and archetypes in a teenage coming of age comedy. Her cousin Orla (played by Louisa Harland) is the group weirdo who will randomly take up pop and lock dancing for an episode and move on by its end. Her best friend, Clare (played by breakout Nicola Coughlan), is the goody two shows perfectionist with the added baggage of being an out lesbian in 1990s Northern Ireland. However, her sexuality is never an issue in the story and any jokes or humor is always more on how ignorant (non derogatory) or awkward other people are in their attempts to be inclusive or kind. Michelle (played by Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) is the wild child girl obsessed with boys and getting into miscellaneous troubles and adventures; though, mostly unsuccessfully. James (played by Dylan Llewellyn) is the literal odd man out being the only boy and non-full Irish among the pack who just wants to get along with everyone without causing trouble. All in all, the series follows the pretty standard narrative and arc of a teenage show airing on American broadcast television back when those were part of the lineup.

Of course, there was a dancing competition episode.

Personally, however, what endeared this series to me, beyond the witty, believable dialogue and stellar performances (seriously Louisa Harland as Orla is a study worth example of physical and aloof comedy) was how the series managed to intertwine the banality of teenage life with the chaos and tragedy of the Troubles the characters were experiencing. Because that is integral to the series. For all the comedy and ridiculous situations the show presented, the circumstances of conflict and prejudice and violence were never completely gone. In one scene in the second season, the girls are saving Orla after reconciling from their first real fight among themselves. While they are having this moment of teenage triumph, we see Erin’s and Orla’s family in front of the television seeing a report about the latest bombing attack and the lives lost. In a more personal situation, Clare finally manages to have her first kiss, not an easy feat for a wee lesbian, but is then faced with the information that her father had an aneurysm and had passed. In the series finale, Michelle is dealing with the potential repercussions of the Good Friday Agreement as it would mean the release of her brother who was imprisoned for his participation in a bombing that resulted in casualties. Triumph and tragedy are interlaced throughout the series and for each individual character. And these are not one off situations for humor or comedy as each actor is giving time and substance to show the depths of their character’s arc and the lack of a truly clear, concise, or fully moral answer.

I don’t think it was simply circumstance or accident that this particular series became the international hit it did. Though it is, at times, a ridiculous sitcom, at its core Derry Girls is a story of the triumphs and tragedies of life found even under the most confusing, charged, and brutal periods. It is about finding moments of happiness and understanding and joy amid uncertain times wherein loves ones and lives could be lost at any given moment. Is it so surprising that a story with that built in message and framework would resonate with so many in our modern age? Watch Derry Girls. It is truly something special that deserves even more attention and audience than it has garnered.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s