The hilarious Netflix comedy “Derry Girls,” made by Lisa McGee, is about two long-running states of conflict: adolescence and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The show is primarily a brutally comic coming-of-age tale, following five working-class friends at a Catholic girls’ school in the 1990s. The third and final season of the show premieres on Friday. However, the bigger political conflict is constantly apparent, even in the show’s name.
Saoirse-Monica Jackson’s character, Erin, introduces herself in the pilot by writing in her diary that she is 16 years old and resides in “Derry — or Londonderry, depending on your persuasion.”
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Erin’s Catholic friends and neighbours refer to it as “Derry,” but the official name is “Londonderry,” which is chosen by Protestant unionists who favour Northern Ireland’s continued membership in the United Kingdom. As a military truck passes and “Dreams” by the Cranberries plays on the soundtrack, the camera soars over young people who are spray-painting over the “London-” on a road sign in the intro.
This is “Derry Girls,” painted with spray paint and ’90s pop music. It is a spunky, upbeat account of growing up in a war zone in a bubblegum-punk style.
The sincere, awkward Erin and her companions, jittery Orla (Louisa Harland), nervous-looking Claire (Nicola Coughlan, “Bridgerton”), brassy Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), and Michelle’s shy English cousin, James (Dylan Llewellyn), are aware of the times they are in. (In an inside joke, Erin’s mock-dramatic narration about her generation’s plight opens each season.)
However, they have typical teen issues including money, popularity, breaking the law, and avoiding Sister Michael (Siobhán McSweeney), their sarcastic, don’t-suffer-the-pity headmistress.
McGee is a skilled smuggler, much like a teen in a tough school. She has woven a social-political allegory into the fabric of the outrageous comedy “Derry Girls” in “Derry Girls.”
A scam, a road trip, or a wacky misunderstanding are just a few of the classic, gleefully executed sitcom plots that are the foundation of almost every episode. These plots invariably lead to an avalanche of bad choices compounded by freakouts, which typically result in punishment or even a house fire.
The prickly chemistry between the leads also serves to root the shenanigans in the lived reality of the youngsters. McGee’s prose is raucous and vibrant; the conversation bounces around like a pinball and employs expletives as punctuation.
I regret not being able to cite the majority of the best passages. Teen girlhood is portrayed in “Derry Girls” as a kind of dangerous chemical reaction; its protagonists, charmingly, have no sense of humour.
The fact that they also reside in a region that is rife with sectarian conflict is background noise and an unavoidable inconvenience of daily existence. In the pilot, a bomb scare complicates the morning travel to school. In a subsequent episode, the friends sneak away to Belfast for a concert by the pop group Take That.
Michelle brings a suitcase of vodka on the bus, and when she claims not to be the owner to avoid getting caught for underage drinking, the “unclaimed bag” sparks an evacuation and is later detonated by the bomb squad.
Adolescence poses a threat to itself in the form of a ticking time bomb. Both the setting in which they reside and the characters in “Derry Girls” are in the midst of transformation. Bill Clinton’s 1995 trip to Northern Ireland to support the peace process marks the conclusion of Season 2. The ladies are dealing with what life might be like for them after graduation as Season 3 opens, while Derry is thinking about what might happen following a peace agreement.
Even though the anarchy persists, this theme raises the stakes for the seven-episode final season. More than one character is affected by a death in the family, and it is revealed that one character’s family member was imprisoned as a result of the revolt.
Adulthood hangs over all else. The girls worry in the season premiere over their performance on a significant school exam, and Claire’s breakdown sums up their concerns: “Passing those examinations was our only chance.” We’re female. We lack money. From Northern Ireland, we are. For the love of Christ, we are Catholic! (Watching Coughlan turn into a blaze of molten panic is entertaining.)
With a memorable episode that flashes back to their parents as members of the class of ’77, the final season emphasises the girls’ disadvantages. The seniors, who have acted as comedic relief buffoons for most of the series, were once young people raging with hormones and rebelling against authority. (The song “Teenage Kicks” by Derry’s the Undertones, introduced as “our national anthem,” is included in the episode.)
All of this culminates in a two-part climax that takes place in 1998, the year the girls turn 18, just as Northern Ireland is set to vote on a power-sharing arrangement known as the Good Friday Referendum. Perhaps our heroines are but a single link in a long line of Derry women and girls.
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The conclusion, though, makes a cheerful but not morose suggestion that things might be different, or at the very least that it’s important to think that they might be.
Like many quick British comedies, “Derry Girls” has a relatively brief run, which allows it to compress adolescence into an appropriately little area. In what seems like such a brief period of time in retrospect, so much occurs. The series is able to come to a flawless and perfect finale before the long-running sitcom problem of unrealistic character ageing or unavoidable character softening.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I would have happily watched 200 episodes of “Derry Girls.” However, its hasty conclusion is in line with the frank tone of the programme. It couldn’t last forever, like one’s own youthful highs.
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