If, like me, you grew up in the late 90s on Nesquik and cartoons, you’ll find an eerie familiarity in “Derry Girls”.
The semi-autobiographical series created by Lisa McGee, which concluded with the third season released on Netflix on October 7, has five archetypal protagonists: Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson)the aspiring writer a little full of herself, her cousin Orla (Louisa Harland)who lives in a world of his own, Claire (Nicola CoughlanPenelope Featherington from “Bridgerton”), the neurotic geek, Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), party girl and sassy, and her cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn)officially named “Girl from Derry” too.
The premise is pretty simple: five teenagers coping with normalcy in 1990s Northern Ireland. An uncommon normalityhowever, since the country is still divided by the conflict in Northern Ireland, the guerrilla which sees Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists as opposed.
The city itself where the story takes place, and which gives its name to the series, is emblematic of the riots: Derry (or Londonderry – “depending on your beliefs” comments Erin in the first episode –, the name preferred by Protestants), in which the Bloody Sunday massacre took place.
Political events are always present, in the background of a TV on the news broadcasting news of attacks, or in the figures of the soldiers who guard the city walls. But the focus is on the girls’ daily lives: while the television announces a bomb threat, Erin discusses with her parents the freedom to wear what she wants to go to school; the bus that takes the group to the Catholic institute she attends every morning is stopped by the military for a search; their summer camps are Catholic-Protestant integration programs.
Thanks to the pandemic, now we are all able to understand what it means to live normally in a context that has very little normality – which brings us to the great strength of this series: the ease with which the viewer recognizes himself in the characters.
As mentioned, the times the girls live are anything but ordinary, but their problems are universally characteristic of teenagers: passing exams, finding money for a trip, dealing with the snobbish girl at school. Above all, getting away with Sister Michael (an irresistible Siobhán McSweeny), the sarcastic and impatient headmistress of the school, source of some of the best jokes in the series, and who deep down has a thing for girls, no matter how much hide it behind his iconic annoyed expressions.
The girls’ intended antagonists and, more often than not, reluctant accomplices are the adults, especially Erin’s family, which surrounds all their affairs: the badass mother Mary (Tara Lynne O’Neill), father Gerry (Tommy Tiernan ), always in conflict with the fantastic grandfather Joe (Ian McElhinney, who fans of “Game of Thrones” will recognize for the role of Barristan Selmy), and the ditzy aunt Sarah (Kathy Kiera Clarke).
Rounding out the main cast are a variety of supporting characters who are seen off and on for an episode or two a season, and outside of those are never named. Precisely for this reason, every time they reappear on the screen it’s like finding old cinema tickets in the pockets of your coat.
There is the talkative uncle Colm (Kevin McAleer), boring to exhaustion but which therefore proves to be the perfect weapon in the hands of the girls several times (and which in the end will also take a small revenge); the grouchy Dennis (Paul Mallon)who never misses an opportunity to quarrel with the girls and finally kick them out of the little shop he manages (“Get out of here!” is his signature line); and handsome Father Peter (Peter Campion)who enchants the girls (and James) with her gorgeous hair.
The episodes (six per season, plus a final special) are based on typical sitcom premises – a misunderstanding, a trip out of town, a scam -, and are all self-contained, in the same way that cartoon episodes are. from the 90s.
There is no “greater” plot, there is no point at which one must arrive: small moments in the life of the protagonists are told that do not necessarily have an ultimate goal, other than to share – something that is not seen so often in today’s television. And McGee’s skill is in pointing out that, even under extraordinary circumstances, there is still an ordinary life to be lived.
The dialogues are brilliant and brilliantly acted. Not a word too many or out of place, yet the exchanges between the characters are so full of jokes that just once is not enough: “Derry Girls” is one of those series in which every rewatch brings new things, while things already learned continue to make people laugh and make inroads. The chemistry between the actors is palpable, and not for a moment is there any doubt of their chemistry.
The series is a comedy, but the sad moments, when they come, really are. And it’s important that they come, sudden and shocking and seemingly impossible to overcome. As happens in life. They are moments from which there is no going back, in which a little innocence is lost, because they are part of becoming an adult. Eventually we realize that above everything hovers the awareness that we must grow.
And the series knows perfectly well that it is not a choice, it is not something that can be avoided. “Derry Girls” is, fundamentally, a coming-of-age story, and this means that it must end, in a very natural way, when the protagonists become adults. In one of the last scenes James asks Erin how she feels now that she is eighteen. The answer, in all its simplicity, is painfully acceptable: “I’m not sure I’m ready for the world. But things cannot stay as they are. And they shouldn’t”.
The story ends in 1998, and the characters we have come to know for their comedy and lightness find themselves having to face a decision that could change their world: Northern Ireland is called to the polls to vote for the Good Friday Referendum , the agreement which established peace in the country and put an end to the armed struggle.
Suddenly the stakes are high. The image that closes the final season is wonderful: Grandpa Joe jumping out of his seat hand in hand with his youngest granddaughter, a generational meeting that wants to leave the world better than it was.
The comedy and the lightness of the situations, despite the historical period, make the incorporation of the tragedy even more pungent, and make it clear that we are talking about real life here, that life so fragmentary and bitter and frivolous and incredibly significant that we all live.
We are talking about universality. Because despite the cultural and historical differences, despite the language barrier (there is no dubbed version of the series, and perhaps it’s for the best: the Irish inflection is an essential element of the viewing experience), “Derry Girls” is about something at some point we have all been and will be: teenagers grappling with life.