Derry Girls is a Northern Irish comedy show produced by Hat Trick Productions and broadcast by Channel 4. It is also widely available on Netflix for those of you who, like me, aren’t living in the United Kingdom. It has been greeted as commercial and critical success, going as far as to become the most watched series in Northern Ireland since modern records began. This is not a small task for a comedic show centered around teenage girls, but it is deserved. That’s because Derry Girls is a comedy jewel which relies on my favorite comedy tropes: impossible escalation to the extreme of normal situations, and characters whose stupidity is flirting with absurdism.
Yeah Derry Girls is violently funny, borderline absurd, and is proud of it. It is all I ask from a comedic show.
Derry Girls follows Erin and her friends, Michelle, Orla, Clare, and James (Michelle’s English cousin) in their daily lives in Londonderry. All five of them go to the Catholic girls’ school (there were concerns about Jame’s safety if he attended the boys’ school). The show’s rhythm is dictated by exams, school trip, arrival of their Ukrainian penpals, etc etc. And everything takes place in the 90’s. Not the sexy 90’s seen through nostalgia goggles and a renewed interest in chokers, no—the real 90’s in which, like every in every single eras, teenagers made tacky fashion decisions (but not too tacky either; you wouldn’t want to be an individual on your own) they will regret in the future.
Of course all these situations rapidly spiral completely out of control for our greatest pleasure. And when I say completely and rapidly, this is not an exaggeration. The episode length is around 20 minutes, but that won’t stop the story from going from the anxiety of not passing an history exam to a miracle being officially denied in the local press. Nothing will stop the story, because nothing will stop the characters. Not decency, and certainly not common sense.
None of the main cast of Derry Girls are Good People™. This is not because they are amoral monsters hellbent on world destruction, but because they are teenagers, so they are extremely stupid and selfish. Taken to their extreme, it would make them quite despicable to follow if the show was serious.
Indeed Erin is self-centered, thinks she knows better, and has absolutely no loyalty to her friends. Clare is a coward that will snitch to the adults in the hope to get away with she has done with her friends; she also has useless fixation on moral causes at the wrong time. Orla is weird, for lack of better word, and has a thing for Renault (yes the car brand, for some reason). Michelle is attention seeking, and will lead her friends in the worst situation possible. James is English and not gay, which are two cardinal sins to begin with (also he wants to be loved and cool so badly).
The adult cast is not significantly better, even if there is more common sense to be found among it. Of course here I count Sister Michael as an exception. She is a pretty smart character and she is clearly suffering every day from having to deal with the others. Which is both genuinely funny and extremely relatable.
I also wanted to make a special mention to Ian McElhinney playing Granda Joe. He has channeled all his bitterness for D&D’s treatment of Barristan Selmy to pour it back on his son-in-law. It is nice to see you back in such an olympic form Sir.
What makes you actually like the cast is that their character flaws make the comedy works. Not only does it help the total spiraling-out-of-control-of-every-situation, but after two episode it also plays into a sort of running gag. The plan to not tell the parents won’t work since Clare is a snitch. You are left waiting to see the all thing crumble. You know where it will be coming from, but the timing is always perfect and surprising.
I can only say that Derry Girls dares. It dares everything and it is successful. It had been a long time since I have seen a show making jokes about serious subject such as civil war, terrorism, religion, or even sexuality and being genuinely entertained by them. The jokes are never here to trigger or outrage, but they are caustic enough to satisfy my tastes that lean heavily toward black humor.
For example, there is Sister Michael declaring with a soft smile to the Ukrainian exchange students that they might be a bit anxious about the terrorism and borderline civil war going on, but actually the only thing they should remember is that they (the Northern Irish Catholics) are the good guys.
As someone who has grown up in a Catholic country and has studied in a Catholic high school (even if I am not Catholic), I laughed quite a lot. Surprisingly I also had that one new young priest that was insanely popular (by Catholic high school standards mind you) in my high school, so seeing one having a existential/faith crisis was intensely funny. That doesn’t mean that Derry Girls carries a particularly anti-religious message. Rather, Catholicism is part of the characters’ life and like any part of their life, including greasy Friday junk food, it is not above a joke.
Finally of course, there is the total stupidity of the characters that feeds absurd situation. I liked it in Kaamelott; I like it in Derry Girls too.
Derry Girls is not naive self-righteous. There is also a significant amount of the plot that relies on aggressiveness between characters and things going the wrong way. Its brand of humor is also rather dark since it deals with pretty serious subject outside of the high school drama. The characters are rather poor. They live in a war-torn country. There is a terrorist trying to cross the border at some point. This is the 90’s, not exactly the nicest time to live if you were LGBTQ.
All these subjects are tackled in Derry Girls, and even in their treatment is funny, yet in a way where no watcher can forget that they are real life serious and sad issues. I personally believe that comedy is always at its best when it manages to make fun of deadly serious. BThat doesn’t mean that what the comedy is saying isn’t depressing and cannot be acknowledged as such. That what Kaamelott did with its later season, when Arthur’s loneliness and depression stopped being funny. (Yes I promised I would come back on the subject of Kaamelott.)
Yet Derry Girls deals with teenagers. Its protagonist are at the beginning of their life. I don’t think that the show adopting a cynical tone or a depressing one would be fair for its characters. Thankfully, it doesn’t.
Derry Girls is incredibly positive between its absurdity and its dark humor. Life is not a long calm river. Shit is bound to hit the fan eventually, but despite their petty actions and cowardliness, people stand by the people they care about. So things will be fine—not perfect—but fine. The last episode of season one makes sure of that. Both the ‘Orla’s love for aerobic’ and the ‘Wee Lesbian’ storylines are here to remind us of that. And it works, in addition to be dreadfully funny.
Derry Girls Season 1 is only six episodes long. Yet I didn’t needed more to get attached to the characters and to the show. So do yourself a favor: the day you need comedy with teeth, but ultimately positivity, give Derry Girls a chance. You won’t regret it.
In the meantime, I will be waiting for season 2 by watching the trailer.