tv review

Derry Girls Is Teen TV at Its Best

Photo: Netflix

Derry Girls, a Channel 4 production that has just returned for its second season on Netflix, is about a group of teen girls in Northern Ireland during the tail end of the Troubles, a period of violence between Irish nationalists and United Kingdom loyalists that lasted from the late ’60s through the late ’90s. Given that premise, the best thing about Derry Girls is also the most seemingly unlikely: It’s fantastically funny.

The series has its moments of bleakness, sure — in the first episode, the central group of girls has to take an unusually long bus ride to their first day of school, because terrorists have bombed the main bridge between their neighborhood and the rest of the city. Then the bus is stopped by soldiers, who search it for explosives. But such glimmers of violence that surface into the show’s consciousness are always immediately twisted back into the absurdity and immediacy of teen life. The bridge may be bombed, but the primary concern is that Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) and her cousin Orla (Louisa Harland) won’t be able to go to school, which Erin’s mom (Tara Lynne O’Neill) needs because she desperately wants them to just get out of the dang house. Orla’s mother (Kathy Keira Clarke), meanwhile, is primarily worried that she’ll miss her appointment at the tanning salon. The bus search is a similar mix of terror and mundanity: While Erin yawns at the delay and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) lusts after one of the soldiers, Michelle’s cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) is supremely worried about the search. He’s English. He’s not used to it. The girls, meanwhile, find his fear laughably pathetic.

James’s foreignness, his Englishness, is one of the show’s running jokes. If you can’t follow along, if you can’t slide into the hyperspecific, fast-paced snarl of their slang and references and fears and grudges, if you don’t know who the Irish Travellers are, or why Erin’s Granda Joe (Ian McElhinney) has a long-running feud with Maureen Malarkey, or how to behave at a wake, then what is even the point of you? But James continues to shuffle along with the rest of the gang, largely because he has no choice but surely also because they’re magnetically funny.

In so many ways, Derry Girls resists the easy traps that so often hinder teen shows. Rather than reaching for universalism with a generic high-school setting that looks like it could be anywhere, Derry Girls is obsessively rooted in its time and place. Its central group of characters are all equally absurd and equally flawed; Erin is the protagonist, but she’s no more perfect or more depressed or more or less privileged than anyone else. The teachers, the other students, the parents — all are distinct, well-considered characters even if they appear only occasionally onscreen. And unlike many a teen show where the adults are either unbearably boring or, just as unfortunate, far more interesting than the teenagers, the adults of Derry Girls are as humane and flawed and funny as their children.

It is, underneath everything else, a remarkably generous show. The generosity focuses inward: While Erin and her friends are often in terrible scrapes, generally of their own making, Derry Girls has a deep, unswerving well of sympathy for them. They may be overwrought, hungover teenagers who claim to have seen a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping real tears so they can get out of an exam. Onto that bus they may have snuck a suitcase of vodka that, through an unfortunate set of circumstances, ends up being investigated as a potential bomb. They may cut school and wear unbelievably unflattering prom dresses and accidentally set fire to the local fish-and-chips shop (not all at once). But they are also endlessly appealing, believable teen girls, smack in the middle of that dizzying, delirious teenage place that’s perfectly balanced between being ridiculous and being keenly aware of one’s own ridiculousness.

But Derry Girls’ generosity also radiates outward, with the kind of joyful delight that wants viewers to have a great, memorable, happy time while watching a TV show, even if that show also happens to be about a place marked by nationalist violence that tore a country apart for decades. Its 12 episodes to date, each only 22 to 24 minutes long, are packed with story and often built like comedies of error that spiral upward into more and more absurd places until they finally burst with a delicious, satisfying pop. The fact that its episodes are generally structured as complete, stand-alone stories doesn’t create the sensation that the world is thin or superficial, incapable of sustaining a longer narrative — if anything, it’s the reverse. There are so many stories Derry Girls wants to tell, so many goofy ideas and awkward social interactions and moments in history it wants to capture. The stories on Derry Girls end because it cannot wait to get started on the stories that come next.

Even shows with lots to recommend them, ones full of interesting ideas and compelling performances, can still feel leaden, overburdened by their own weight. (Looking at you, Euphoria.) Some are interesting messes (The Society), some are less messy but also less interesting (Trinkets), some are just straight messes from top to bottom (13 Reasons Why). And many of them mistake teenhood for unbroken melodrama, forgetting that while the lows of adolescence can be unbearably low, the highs can also be giddily, joyously high. Derry Girls not only avoids those fates, it dodges them so nimbly that it’s almost easy to overlook how careful it is, how painstakingly it balances its humor with seriousness, its silliness with sincerity. Some TV shows are just more magical than the others, and Derry Girls is one of the magical ones.

Derry Girls Is Teen TV at Its Best