Watching Derry Girls is a little like reliving your teenage years, if your teenage years involved accidentally setting an apartment on fire or witnessing an elderly nun die of heart failure in detention. Set during the tail end of the Troubles in ’90s Northern Ireland, the comedy traces the misadventures of four teenage girls and their male English sidekick inside and outside their Catholic high school. By the time it landed on Netflix last December, Derry Girls was already a bona fide hit on U.K.’s Channel 4.
The show balances its irreverent tone with the realities of growing up in a tense, decades-long political conflict, largely thanks to Derry-born creator and writer Lisa McGee. In honor of the show’s recent season-two U.K. premiere (sorry, Americans, but you’re stuck waiting a bit longer for the season to hit Netflix), Vulture caught up with McGee to talk about British Soft Boys, Bill Clinton’s famous 1995 visit to Derry, the enduring appeal of the Cranberries, and what to expect this coming season.
Congratulations on the show’s second season! How was the red-carpet premiere compared to season one?
It was completely different! Series one we premiered in Derry as well, but it was in the morning, basically my family and a lot of [actress Saoirse-Monica Jackson’s] family as well. This year, it was like red carpets on live news. It was crazy and people were lining up, taking selfies with the cast. It was a big affair.
I saw the photos of those Norwegian exchange students who wrote “Derry Girls” on their stomachs.
That was nuts! We all were a bit overwhelmed — we’re delighted obviously, but we were a bit shell-shocked. When we pulled up at the cinema and got out of the taxi, there was paparazzi and I was like, What is going on? But yeah, Derry’s so proud of it and Northern Ireland is as well, it’s quite a big deal there.
And there’s that mural that Channel 4 commissioned, too.
We had our photos taken at that mural, which was so surreal. Growing up in Derry, murals are normally associated with painful things, violence and war. A lot of murals are of people who have passed away through the Troubles, so to see a comedy with an English guy in it being celebrated, it was quite moving, actually.
In the show, there’s comedy even while the characters are dealing with armed police checkpoints and bomb threats. How do you manage that comedic tone against that backdrop of political turmoil?
I think that sense of humor actually was part of everyday life. It had to nearly become mundane in a way; it was a survival instinct thing, so people did joke about it. It’s already part of our identity, that very dark, strange sense of humor.
In terms of where the line is with the jokes, there are certain things I wouldn’t do. I wanted the British army to be a very neutral presence — they never are part of the joke — because that’s obviously still very sensitive, the British occupation thing. It was partly what I knew and partly just working out where the line was, how far I could push a joke, and what the rules of the world were comedically.
What do you think was the edgiest joke?
The Orange Order episode with the [Irish Republican Army] guy in the boot [of the car] were two jokes I was nervous about because you don’t want to piss off the Orange Order, and you don’t want to piss off the IRA. But I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t make fun of those things, so when it went down okay I was like, Oh God, relief.
The first season ended on a sobering note, cutting to the news report of a fatal bombing. Does that serious tone come up again in season two?
Something big happens at the end of the second series. It ends on quite an emotional beat as well, but I would probably say more of a hopeful one. These kids are just getting through life while around them bigger things they’re not even fully aware of are going on, so I’ve tried to do something that touches on the political situation but with the gang sort of unaware of how huge it is. I find it more emotional, actually, than series one because it’s dealing with hope, and I think hope is the most scary. The possibility of hope can be the saddest thing. When everything’s just tragic, you sort of become accustomed to that. But when there’s the glimmer that you might get out of this, I find that quite emotional.
What do you think makes the show so universal, even for viewers who don’t know the historical context too well?
The main thing is, it’s a show about young women that feels truthful. They aren’t always talking about boys, or periods, or how big their boobs are — they’re ambitious. I think women are so used to having people tell them what they are, and when you see young women full of energy and being horrible or being funny or being disgusting, that really strikes a chord with people. They go, Oh God, that’s what me and my friends are like, or were like, at that age.
The main cast is allowed to be unlikable.
Yes, exactly. This idea that female characters need to be likable and strong has pissed me off for a long time because people say about some female characters, “Oh God, she’s so bitchy or whatever and I don’t like her,” but then Tony Soprano actually kills people and he’s liked. I’ve always had a problem with how carefully people have felt they’ve had to walk the line when creating female roles, and I think there are lots of people trying to do away with that now and just write humans. I’d love to get to the point where we’re not even asking, “Is the thing written by a woman or not?”
The humor in Derry Girls is extremely Irish. Did you ever try to make it more relatable to wider audiences?
Not really. I never thought it would get such a big audience. I thought, God, I have this chance to write about my hometown. I’m never going to get a chance like this again, so I really wanted to do something very authentic that I could look back on and be proud of. I’m not that surprised that people identify with the Irish family because there are lots of people from lots of cultures that have that matriarch and that sort of setup, don’t they? And the working-class thing, you don’t have to be Irish to understand not having a lot of money. I just wanted to write something I loved.
Was there anything that surprised you about the jump to Netflix and how that changed the audience?
When it went on Netflix, I read someone in America saying that they started watching this show they thought was about Irish teenagers, and they’d gone down a Wikihole about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and had seven tabs open and their head was about to explode. I just think that’s so funny that this little comedy has now gone worldwide and some people are trying to find out the history of it.
It’s mind-blowing when you see all of the different places that people are watching. It surprised me how huge the Cranberries were. It was such a particular time [when] people were listening to them, so I think that sort of nostalgia, you didn’t have to be Irish to understand that. Everyone was listening to them when they were 15, 16, or whatever.
When you watch the first episode, the opening scene with “Dreams” playing instantly transports you to that time.
The power of that is amazing, just hearing a song and you’re back there, it’s unbelievable. The Cranberries always did that for me. That’s why we decided to use them to open and close the show.
What’s in store for the next season?
I’m looking at the beginnings of the peace process, so it will have the first IRA cease-fire and we carry right through until Bill Clinton visited Derry in ’95, which obviously you can imagine was a big day. That’s the backdrop. In terms of the gang, in the first episode they go on a “friends across the barricades” — these things we actually had to do where they forced you to mix with Protestants, essentially. So they meet the equivalent gang, but they’re boys and they’re Protestant and it just doesn’t go to plan. They also get a really inspirational teacher this year.
Do you recall that day when Clinton visited Derry?
I was about 14. It was crazy. You couldn’t have gotten near the town center. Everyone was out in the streets and waving American flags; it was just the biggest day probably in Derry’s history. It was saying, We think this peace thing might work; the president’s taking it seriously. What was very strange was re-creating that in the same place. It was just so weird because I, obviously, was there. We were filming it in the square in the center of town that he made the speech in.
I don’t know if you saw this, but James was mentioned in a piece Vulture did on “British Soft Boys.”
Yeah, it really made me laugh because he is such a British Soft Boy. There are lots of them now, aren’t there? But yeah, he’s like a superstar in Derry now; everyone just wants to adopt him. Derry just can’t get enough of Dylan [Llewellyn]. He’s definitely the favorite.
I imagine all the cast are celebs now in Derry?
Oh God, yeah, but he would be everyone’s favorite. He’s even my mum and dad’s favorite.
With Clare’s character, too, there was her whole coming-out story line. Will we see more of that in the next season?
Everyone kept asking who could her girlfriend be, and I thought, She’s still Clare. She’s still a loser. She’s not going to suddenly get this hot girlfriend! I definitely didn’t think Clare coming out was going to sort out all her problems. She’s still obsessed with doing well at school and trying to fit in, but she’s definitely got a little bit more confidence since she’s come out, because she has a thing now. They all wear little rainbow badges on their uniform blazers this year, but Clare wears two because she’s the actual gay one and she doesn’t want anyone jumping on her bandwagon. But yeah, she’s definitely not all sorted out now; she’s still a disaster.
Do you know when the new season will be on Netflix?
I think they don’t want it to be too long after Channel 4, but to be honest, I have no idea of a definite date. It won’t be as long as last time, definitely.
Any ideas for season three?
I would love to take the show up until the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. I’d like to end the whole thing with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but working out that timeline and how that would exactly pan out could be tricky.
This interview has been edited and condensed.