For the sake of journalistic integrity, there are a few things I should probably cop to before reviewing a teen comedy set in Northern Ireland during the final decade of The Troubles.
One: As someone named after the Gaelic word for “Ireland,” I have an irrationally specific affinity for all Celtic cultural production. Two: Just to clarify where I fall on the socio-political conflict between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Irish Nationalists—fuck the English (it’s more complicated than this, but also, it’s not). Three: I just spent Missoula’s polar vortex watching bad but perfect teen dramedies with my roommates, all of which were set in the nightmare years of the late ‘90s and early ‘2000s (I’m talking “A Cinderella Story” featuring the light of my life, Hilary Duff).
All of this is to say that when I heard Netflix had released a new comedy series about a group of misfit high schoolers attending a Northern Ireland Catholic school in the ‘90s, a show about sixteen-year-old girls dealing with all the typical anxiety-inducing social dynamics that exist on school buses plus the added stress of having one’s bus stopped and searched by a police force that’s packing heat, I thought: Sign me the hell up.
Our fearless leader in “Derry Girls” is Erin Quinn (I told you I couldn’t be impartial about this show), perpetually scowling, equally enraged at any given moment about both her relative social obscurity at school and the spectre of English tyranny. Erin is simultaneously sexually squeamish and boneheaded. I will be forever haunted by the scene in which she observes a dog piss down the face of a Madonna statue at church, but in an attempt to receive attention from the priest she’s crushing on, claims the figure was weeping.
Erin’s friend group constitute the remaining shades of teenage insanity. Her bizarre-but-endearing cousin Orla, the ambitious but skittish Clara, hoop-earring-wearing and sailor-mouth-swearing Michelle, and Michelle’s cousin James, a quietly sarcastic English boy who attends the all-girls Catholic school for fear of getting beat up in a co-ed setting, round out the crew. “His mum went to England for an abortion,” Michelle says with a smirk when introducing James to her friends. “Never got the abortion either.”
In addition to its wit and perfectly executed physical comedy, “Derry Girls” excels at one especially difficult task: highlighting political conflict while allowing it to remain in the background, never letting it overwhelm the development and dynamics between its lead characters. Never forget, the school’s deadpan and inscrutable head nun says to visiting students, “We’re the goodies.” Yes you are, “Derry Girls.” You really are.