‘Derry Girls’ is a ‘cracker’ blend of comedy and pure ’90s nostalgia
Claire Rafford | Thursday, April 25, 2019
“You see, the thing about living in Derry is, there’s nowhere to hide. Everybody knows everybody, knows everything about everybody and sometimes all I want to do is to be simply left alone.”
These words — which begin the pilot of the U.K. series “Derry Girls” — are read directly from 16-year old protagonist Erin Quinn’s diary. In a dramatic reversal, though, it’s revealed the diary is being read aloud by Erin’s cousin Orla, causing a spat between the two that leads to a brilliant piece of television.
This comedic twist on what would otherwise be a morose speech embodies the spirit of “Derry Girls” — a sitcom airing on the British Channel 4 television show and recently brought to America via Netflix. The show is about a group of friends living in Derry in the 1990s during the height of the Troubles — the conflict between Protestants and Catholics that ravaged Northern Ireland toward the end of the 20th century. The show revolves around the lives of five teenagers — dramatic, lovably narcissistic Erin, her spacey cousin Orla, straight-laced Clare, raunchy Michelle and Michelle’s cousin James, “the wee English fella” who was abandoned in Derry by his free-spirited mother.
The show revolves around the antics of Erin and her friends in the midst of the Troubles, which walk the line between being bizarre and believable to create an appeal audiences can’t help but love. The girls’ shenanigans — which range from reporting a false apparition of “tears” on a Virgin Mary statue, which turn out to be dog pee, to stealing a job notice board to corner the market on town employment opportunities — are hilarious, yet touching. Despite the unusual accents and foreign slang — the girls refer to things they like as “class” and “cracker” and to cute boys as “rides” — they’re lively, relatable teenagers the audience can’t help but root for.
But what makes “Derry Girls” such a breath of fresh air goes beyond the main cast, though the core five are brilliant. In particular, Saoirse Monica Jackson — a Derry native — is wonderfully self-absorbed as Erin, and Louisa Harland as Orla hits every one-liner she recites in her monotone drawl. Still, the show’s merit is bolstered by a strong cast of supporting characters whose zaniness only enhances their charm. Aunt Sarah’s shameless vanity, Grandpa Joe’s utter disrespect for Erin’s father Gerry, school principal Sister Michael’s biting one-liners, Orla and Erin’s incredibly dull Great-Uncle Colm and more fantastic background characters enrich the adventures of the main five.
The show relies heavily on nostalgia, which can be a crutch for some sitcoms (read: “The Goldbergs” and the like). But show creator Lisa McGee is careful to sprinkle in just enough of ’90s culture to be delightfully sentimental without becoming cheesy — and achieves the utmost success in doing so. From a conversation involving a misunderstanding about who Macaulay Culkin is, to the girls’ denim jackets, the time period of the show is made clear without relying on troupes to bang it over the head.
But amid pepperings of references, it’s the stellar soundtrack that brings “Derry Girls” to the next level. The music is pure ’90s crack, with popular hits from icons such as Salt-n-Pepa and Madonna, as well as ones less well-known, at least in the U.S., such Whigfield’s “Saturday Night,” which hit number one in the U.K. in 1994. Upon hearing it at a house party, Clare screams, “It’s our song, girls! It’s our song!” The unofficial theme of the show, “Dreams” by the Cranberries, plays in both the pilot and the last episode of series one — wrapping the show in a full-circle way that manages to be perfectly nostalgic and satisfying without once becoming trite or overly precious.
Series two — which just finished airing in the U.K. to roaring success and is expected to air on Netflix sometime in the next year — teases even more alluring misadventures in the season’s trailer, including a prom, a “Take That” concert, a wedding and a funeral — all in six short episodes. In a clip released online, the Catholic Derry girls (and James) venture to a “Friends Across the Barricade” event to connect Catholics with Protestants, which ends in a painfully awkward attempt to reconcile characteristics the two groups have in common. The consensus as per the students? Nothing. In classic “Derry Girls” fashion, the scene brings humor to an otherwise dark topic in a dry, charming way, teasing a strong start for series two.
The last scene of series one encapsulates the entire essence of the show in just a few short minutes. In it, Orla performs step aerobics at the school’s talent show to “Like A Prayer.” The routine is nothing less than an awkward masterpiece (though Netflix replaces the song with Take That’s “Pray,” and it is far more effective in the original). As she is mocked by the crowd, her friends join her onstage in a show of support. This touching display of friendship is cut with excerpts of the Quinn family watching a television broadcast about a brutal bombing — “one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Irish conflict.” As “Dreams” plays once again, shots of the family grieving over the violence is intertwined with the five friends dancing onstage. As series one concludes, the Derry girls and the “wee English fella” show the audience that during times of trouble and war, life goes on — and there’s always hope to be found when you have people in your corner.
Show: “Derry Girls” Series 1
Starring: Saiorse Monica Jackson, Louisa Harland, Jamie Lee-O’Donnell, Nicola Coughlan, Dylan Llewllyn
Favorite episode: Episode 2
If you like: “Girls,” “Sex Education,” “Master of None”
Where to watch: Netflix