WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
The exploits of a group of adolescent girls (and one adolescent boy) in the small Northern Irish town of Derry during the 1990s. As the Troubles that continue to rage around them, the girls are left to navigate their way around the far more pressing issues of high school, boys and a succession of authority figures, each more ridiculous than the last.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
There’s a scene in the very first episode of Derry Girls (2 seasons of six episodes each, available now on Netflix) that sets the tone for everything to come. Soldiers stop a school bus carrying our eponymous Derry Girls after a bomb is found on one of Derry’s main bridges and, aside for the look of fear and bewilderment on the face of the one boy on the bus who we soon find out to be the English cousin of one of our heroines, everyone else on the bus is entirely nonplussed, barely stifling yawns and quickly falling into arguments of whether it’s okay to fancy these male soldiers.
It’s a scene that perfectly encapsulates writer/creator (and real-life Derry girl, herself) Lisa McGee’s mission statement. The Troubles are a key component of the show, and they’re always there in the background. But unless there’s a particular flare-up (as there are, though more often in season 2), they’re only background noise for the characters themselves and their more mundane and universal experiences as teenage girls.
The brilliance of the show lies both in how it beautifully captures what it must have been like to live under the constant presence of a war that had been broiling along for nearly three decades (the first season starts roughly four years before peace was finally reached in the region) and in the way that it uses this background to feed into both its moments of drama and, more importantly, in its primary aim: to be about as funny a show as anything that’s out there right now. And, boy, does it succeed at that.
Yes, the show has dramatic elements, and it is, at its heart, a coming of age story, but it is, first and foremost, a raucously funny comedy whose heightened sense of the absurd works all the better because of the sheer absurdity of the real-life situation in which the girls find themselves. It is when you cut away everything else, gloriously profane, perfectly executed comedy of the highest order. And, boy, do we need it.
These days of "premium TV" have created a rather unfortunate side effect of having a great many so-called comedy shows suffer from a distinct lack of laughs as these shows tend to be, when you get right down to it, dramas with an added dose of (often cynical) humour and shorter running times. Yes, the crème of the crop (Fleabag, as perhaps the creme-iest) actually manages to be as funny as they are dramatic but even really excellent shows like Feel Good, Barry and Russian Doll are never – at least as far as I’m concerned – as funny as they should be for alleged comedies.
Fortunately, along with the rare top-drawer network sitcoms (anything involving Mike Schur, in particular), we do have a few "premium" comedies that see no higher purpose than having the audience laugh their collective butts off for half an hour. Shows like Veep and Curb Your Enthusiasm, which are the greatest examples of these, are certainly anything but stupid and there are moments in both shows that deal with real topics. But what’s truly wonderful about these shows is just how absolutely unapologetic they are about doing whatever they can to pack in the maximum amount of laughs possible in any given episode. Derry Girls is precisely that kind of show – if, admittedly, not quite as brilliant as what are, after all, two of the funniest shows ever made.
The problem with reviewing this sort of show is that it’s very tempting to just reel off a bunch of my favourite gags, but that’s not really a review, and that’s not really helpful. What I can say, though, is that along with some truly killer one-liners and an impressive ability to mine comedy out of the simple act of taking a normal, real-life situation (say, a wake, a detention, or a school trip) and escalating it just to the right side of the absurd, the comedy of Derry Girls comes mostly from the characters.
Oddly, my least favourite character in the show is our very nominal lead, Saoirse-Monica Jackson’s Erin, but that’s less about her being badly written or badly acted (though she can be a wee bit annoying) as much as it is about being surrounded by comedic powerhouses – both in terms of how the characters are written and how they’re played. There isn’t a single weak link to be found in the main or supporting cast, but there are three real standouts that make the show worthwhile all on their own.
First, Erin’s ditzy cousin, Orla, has somehow managed to make the "Phoebe" comedic archetype feel fresh and original after that particular character-type was overplayed even before Friends left the air. Erin’s "granda", Joe (Ian McElhinney), does pretty much the same for the "cantankerous but loveable old bastard" stereotype, armed as he is with some of the show’s most caustic (and sweary) lines and McElhinney’s perfect reading of those lines. And then there is the sheer comedic majesty of Siobhan McSweeney as Sister Michael, a perennially passive-aggressive nun, who steals every single scene she’s in.
Again, though, saying much more than this would be to take away from a show that is really best just to experience for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that if you’ve finished your fifteenth rewatch of Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Veep and you want something to have you laughing your way through your quarantine, there’s barely a better purely comedic tonic available than Derry Girls.
It is super, duper (Northern) Irish, though. You may want to turn on those subtitles.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: