Derry Girls is Still as Vital and Funny as they prepare to say goodbye

by | Apr 9, 2022 | All, Reviews

In a haze of Tribe perfume and Heather Shimmer lipstick, Derry Girls returns to Channel 4 this week for its third series and final series – causing glee and sorrow in equal measure.

Launched in 2018, the show – created by Lisa McGee and loosely based on her own teenage years – tells the story of a group of friends attending a Catholic high school in Derry, where they tussle with adolescence, independence, romance and nuns – all against the backdrop of the Troubles of the 90s. It was an instant hit, both critically and with audiences who devoured the nostalgia and were charmed by the hugely talented cast. And despite the fact it’s been 3 years since season 2 aired, the clamour for Derry Girls has only grown, with a huge international audience finding the nostalgic comedy on Netflix during lockdown, and yearning for more tales from the Irish comedy Spice Girls.

Channel 4 already had form for 90s comedy which gave female teenagers a voice, with their hits My Mad Fat Diary and Raised By Wolves (both also based on their female creators’ own lives), but with Derry Girls the art was perfected. McGee created a teenage comedy that lands in a happy middle ground between the gross-out, grim comedy of the testosterone-heavy Inbetweeners, and the debauched drugs and violence of Skins. Derry Girls exists in a place that reflects the reality of the average teen of the time. Drugs were something other people did. Sex was read about in More magazine, and experienced by the privileged few. The soundtrack and stylings of the 90s setting, evoke so much of a time for the last generation to experience adolescence without the internet, and the endearing innocence that gave them.

Derry Girls launched with instant success.

The adventures of Erin, Claire, Michelle, Orla and James are the kind of scrapes many of us can dimly remember from our own youths – foreign school trips, first concerts, trying to get out of exams, and all the angst of crushes gone wrong, are all typical Derry Girl fare we’ve awkwardly experienced. Of course, inevitably without the hilarious consequences that unfold with the Derry Girls’ wrong choices or bad luck. But this relatability is part of what gives the show the warmth it exudes and is also strikingly evident in Erin’s family who are at the heart of the non-school scenes.

The adults are as well drawn as the teen cast.

Put-upon Gerry, Irish mammy Mary, her ditzy sister Sarah and formidable dad Joe are both utterly Irish and yet totally familiar to any nation. And it’s through them we fully appreciate the time period and reality of the Troubles that dominate their lives. While there have been numerous outstanding dramas that have dealt with those at the centre of the Catholic/Protestant violence during that time period, few focused on the lives of the ordinary people caught up in it, and none put a spotlight on the youth living with the fear and uncertainty overshadowing their adolescence.

Derry Girls does a fantastic job of showing the way humans – and especially teens – cope living in a war zone, with the finale episode of season 1 starkly showing the oblivious, joyous teens capering around on stage at their school show, engrossed in their own dramas and triumphs, while the adults at home see an unfolding horror of a bomb explosion. And the end of the second series emphasises this tunnel focus that’s so typical of youth, when – standing at the front of a crowd waiting to see then US President Bill Clinton speak – Erin and co literally turn their backs on him in order to greet James, who had been planning to leave for England, declaring this was where he belonged because he too was a “Derry Girl”.

That focus on friendship, identity and sense of belonging shows what is most important to all teens, but especially those surrounded by strife as those in Derry during the 80s and 90s were. Putting the focus on teenage girls, a voice so rarely heard in these stories is both important and a brilliant way of entertaining at the front door while the truth slips in the side window.

And of course, it’s simply just funny too. Every one of the core cast is a natural comedian, from the physical clownery of Erin, through the nerdic hysteria of “the wee lesbian” Claire, to the understated off-the-wall batcrapery of Orla, and peaking with the teens’ nemesis – terrifying, deadpan headteacher Sister Michael. It’s no surprise the cast is already garnering attention in other roles (Nicola Coughlin in Bridgerton, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell in Screw, Siobhan McSweeney, in Holding), and attracting Hollywood attention.

Speaking of Hollywood, it certainly comes calling in the first episode of series 3, with an outstanding cameo by someone more used to CGI explosions than Derry police stations, but that’s where they find themselves, alongside our Scooby Doo gang.

Summer has come to an end, and the gang are anxiously (or not, as the case may be) awaiting their GCSE results to see if they will spend another year together at Our Lady Immaculate College (which is of course more important than their future career prospects). During a trip to the local video shop, they run into Sister Michael who happens to let slip that the school already has the results.

One – surprisingly easy – break-in later, Erin and her friends find themselves on the wrong end of a police squad who have arrived to apprehend the local ne’er-do-wells who have been making off with the school’s computers. Turns out that whilst failing to get their hands on the exam results goods they wanted, the teens did find themselves handing some stolen goods right into the back of the thieves’ van. Cue a trip to the local station where our Hollywood star plays the police chief charged with trying to get a confession or any kind of sense out of the babbling bunch.

Meanwhile, the McCools and their neighbours have been suffering a crime spree of their own, perpetrated by a local ruffian by the name of Seamus. Sadly, however, it seems Seamus is under their own roof the whole time, as he is Joe’s new pet, a formerly stray cat.

Despite the 3 year gap between filming, the show effortlessly picks up where it left off, with no feeling of the characters having been apart or grown at all in their time off-screen. The time-setting references are as smart and effective as ever, and the relationships between all of the characters sparkle with interest and heart. There’s absolutely no let up on the humour either, with stand-outs being the visual comedy of the group pressed against the school door attempting to break in, and – surprisingly – the wow factor of the big cameo appearance did not outshine the police interrogation scenes. The dialogue and characterisation is as sharp as ever through the back and forth, and the way that the teens eventually get themselves out of the tricky situation – by employing their deadliest weapon – had me guffawing.

There’s no doubt the high standard will be kept up throughout the rest of this final season, with the stand-alone situations giving us chaos and comedy, and the few threads of continuity carrying through the veins of the show. Will “out” Claire get a girlfriend? Will Erin and James finally get together? Will Sister Michael finally be driven mad by unruly kids and leave the habit? Will Gerry get one over on Joe? And most of all, given how much of an emotional punch each season finale has delivered, just how hard will Lisa McGee ride our hearts when it comes to the final finale?

It’ll be a top-class ride until we find out, for sure.

  Derry Girls begins Tuesday 12th April on Channel 4 

 

Dawn Glen

Dawn Glen

09/04/2022

Scottish TV obsessive, who has been writing about TV since she sent a letter to Playschool and tracked Neighbours ratings. Co-creator of The Ship Yard, devoted to all slow-burn relationships - an all-consuming passion, especially in Britcoms. Wants to be Victoria Wood when she grows up.

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