Let Me Tell You: Derry Girls

Last term, I interviewed Lawrentians about what pieces of entertainment and media got them through the summer of lockdown and isolation. This term, I’m doing the same thing, except it’s my turn. Each week, I’m giving my comfort food, pop culture and art suggestions for the dreary winter we’re facing. What’s something you can watch, read or listen to that can take you to a new world? Well, let me tell you.

I feel like Isabelle from Animal Crossing every week “prattling along about my TV habits!” to the readers of the A&E section. This week, I re-watched “Derry Girls,” a joint-production between Channel 4 in the United Kingdom and Netflix about a group of teenage girls navigating life, identity, religion and politics during the 1990s in Derry, Northern Ireland.  

Framed by the tension, division and violence of the Troubles, Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), her cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), their friends Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and Michelle’s English cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) attend an all-girls Catholic school in Derry — James must go to the girls’ school because the boys would beat him up for being English. There, they cause all sorts of trouble, much to the frustration of their parents and especially Sister Michael, the deadpan nun who is constantly dragged into the schemes, pranks and shenanigans caused by Erin and her friends. 

In many ways, “Derry Girls” is a fairly normal coming-of-age sitcom, — characters come out, experiment with drugs, have crushes and generally take the piss out of each other during the everyday trial and tribulations of being a teenager. Each character in the core group of friends represents those specific personalities every good squad has: the outgoing one, the weirdo, the goody two shoes. These traits manage to stay away from becoming caricatures, which helps endear you to the characters and relate to them like you would your own friends.  

What gives the show interesting dimensions is its choice of setting and the unavoidable implications that it has for the main characters and those around them. The mid-90s in Northern Ireland were situated towards the end of a period called the Troubles, an ethno-nationalist conflict centering on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland but more broadly about centuries of bad blood between the English Protestants and Irish Catholics. Derry, or Londonderry, is located on the border of Northern Ireland and Ireland and was a hot bed of conflict, with regular bombings by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), shows of English force in the streets and a regular tension and disconnect between the English and Irish.  

The characters are faced with not only navigating school, religious identity and sexual orientation but are also living in the middle of low-level armed conflict and political unrest. This grounds the series in the real world, showing that not everything is all sitcom shenanigans and that we must live with the problems of the world, learn from them and understand that there is not always a quick fix. However, the writers still manage to use as many Troubles-related comedic situations as are tasteful and relevant. For example, while on a road trip across the border into Ireland, the girls and their families find a man stowed away in the boot of their car, clearly an Irish Revolutionary who is trying to get to where British law enforcement cannot get to him. While the parents panic over getting caught with him at a checkpoint, Michelle is smitten and convinced that this is how she meets her soulmate. Or when a suitcase gets searched because of a bomb scare, instead of a bomb, Sister Michael discovers liquor that the girls were trying to sneak onto a trip. The story and world are fleshed out thoroughly and realistically but with the tongue and cheek of the girls it follows. From the persnickety Erin to worrywart James and the undeserved confidence of Michelle, the Derry Girls hilariously stumble through what their wee Derry life throws at them.  

Derry Girls is on Netflix and has two six-episode seasons.