The second season of Derry Girls came to U.S. Netflix last Friday, and you should absolutely watch…the first season.
That might sound like a takedown of the new season, but it’s not. Or at least not totally—more on that in a moment. For now, because I’ve never written about Derry Girls before, I come only to praise a show that’s still somewhat obscure by American standards (though it’s the most-watched show in Northern Irish history since they started keeping records), and deserves all the attention it can get.
Derry is the second-largest city in Northern Ireland, and was, for 30 years of irregular warfare, the beating heart of the “Troubles.” This was the site of Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers killed 28 civilians protesting the policy of internment without trial, and it was the site of countless riots and acts of sectarian violence. It was also, as we learn in Derry Girls, the home of some very normal teenagers in the early ‘90s, and Lisa McGee, the show’s creator and a native herself, made a determined effort to tell their story without recourse to Northern Irish tropes. “We couldn’t present that dreary Northern Ireland again,” she told the New York Times, “where it’s always men in leather jackets, everything’s gray and nobody has a sense of humor.”
Nobody could possibly accuse McGee, or her show, of lacking humor. From the opening moments of the pilot episode, it’s frankly hysterical—it all starts with a dramatic voiceover about the life of a Catholic teenage girl in the heart of the Troubles, and just as we’re captured by the drama of the prose, we learn that it’s being read by the cousin of the author, out loud, from her diary. The expected fight ensues, played with gleeful flair by the Erin, the writer. She’s the smart, self-obsessed, and self-sabotaging lead, played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson with such over-the-top expressions that it must have taken some persistent coaching from a relentless director—”more hammy! go big!” But it works, and it works extremely well. Jackson has terrific range, embodying the angst of a 15-year-old with a kind of Kabuki-theater-meets-young-Jim-Carrey emotional extravagance that obliterates the need for realism, and the fact that she herself is 25 years old only makes the spectacle more impressive.
Erin and Cousin Orla live together with their mothers Sarah and Mary, Erin’s father Gerry, and their grandfather Joe—who hates Gerry, though his son-in-law is never anything but mild-mannered and accommodating. “I’ll find some dirt on you yet, boy. I have people working on it,” he warns him in the pilot, despite the fact that Joe has been married to his daughter for 17 years. Erin’s best friends are the timid Clare and the wild Michelle, and on their first day of school we meet Michelle’s newly arrived cousin James, who has to attend their all-girls’ Catholic school because he would get bullied for being English around the boys. For poor James, the girls hold nothing but disdain, and they consider it unforgivable whining when he worries that there’s nowhere in the all-girls school for him to use the bathroom.
Without spoiling more than I already have, I’ll just say that in my mission to get people to watch Derry Girls, I encourage them to watch the pilot, which is one of the tightest, most laugh-out-loud perfect sitcom episodes I’ve seen. From beginning to end, it’s a masterpiece, and the rest of the first season mostly delivers on that promise. McGee uses the political climate of Derry as a subtle reminder of the context of the girls’ lives, but not as a primary narrative tool. They’ll have to take a different route to school because of a bomb, for instance, and they’ll pass British soldiers with machine guns as they walk to church, but since this is ordinary to them, it’s presented as ordinary to us. It’s a wise choice, and one that allows McGee to hammer us with a staggeringly powerful scene in the finale when the implicit violence comes to the forefront, and is contrasted with the innocence and camaraderie of the girls (all of it set to the beautiful “Dreams” by the Cranberries). It pains me to say no more about the scene in question, but it has to be experienced without preconceptions, so I’ll just quietly admit that I can’t escape it without tears.
There’s not a single dud among the cast, but along with Jackson, Siobhan McSweeney deserves special mention as Sister Michael, the glowering nun who mines comedy from even the simplest reactions, as when she listens in stone-faced silence as Clare rats out all her friends in her panic to escape punishment. When she finishes her rant, Sister Michael is waiting with a deadpan expression:
“Well, I think it’s safe to say we all lost a bit of respect for you there, Clare.”
Most impressively of all, McGee manages to ensure that the brilliant set pieces evolve from a clear-eyed examination of the girls’ real and sometimes painful lives. There’s the shattering (and very funny) moment when they discover that unlike the school’s rich girl, they don’t have trust funds; there’s the anxious drive through a parade of the Orange Order, the Protestant group that marches through Catholic sections of the city with plenty of malice to nominally celebrate a historical defeat of a Catholic king, but mostly to express their disdain for their countrymen; there’s the drama around a trip to the “chippy,” the culinary center of their existence. In every case, you can feel Derry lurking behind them, and the effect is only heightened by McGee’s creative command of the dialect, all of it spoken with that coarse Northern Irish high-rising terminal. (For Americans like me, subtitles are a must.)
I’ve seen Derry Girls described as a female version of The Inbetweeners, and while that show has its moments, I’ve found Derry Girls to be a deeper, more fulfilling experience, and one that isn’t afraid to show its wounded heart.
The second season, unfortunately, falls short of that high standard until the sixth and final episode, when it somewhat recovers its footing. The comedy is the first to suffer, with contrived plots (baked scones laced with hash that unsuspecting people eat!) that seem to have nothing to do with the characters that were so well-conceived in the first season. They repeat the bits that worked in the first go-round, but it’s diminishing returns most of the way since they seem to be trotting out their greatest hits rather than arriving at the humor organically. The sense of place isn’t quite as poignant, even as a backdrop, and so it’s less immersive (it’s no coincidence that when Derry returns in the finale, so to speak, the old quality comes with it). Even the reliable Northern Irish sarcasm doesn’t bite quite has hard—early in the finale, when Joe (the girls’ father) learns that their boring Uncle Colm met JFK when he visited Northern Ireland, he delivers this line—
“JFK spoke to Colm? Christ, that man didn’t have much luck, did he?”
—and I realized it was the first belly laugh I’d had all season. And even the attempts at emotion come off a little stunted, as in the juxtaposition between an absurd re-enactment of the Carrie pig’s blood scene at a prom and the celebrations on the Derry streets of an IRA ceasefire. It’s an odd mirror image of the scene that worked so well in the season one finale, with all the same beats, but none of the same impact. And speaking of repeats, they even use “Dreams” again, which seems like a strange move for a show that still only has 12 episodes.
None of this means that it’s bad, or not worth watching, just that the sheer surprising delight of the first season isn’t quite matched here. But that would have been nearly impossible, considering the heights of what came before. As a whole, Derry Girls is still the hidden comedy gem of 2019, coming from the most unlikely place and delivering the most unlikely laughs.
Shane Ryan is the Politics editor at Paste. Follow him on Twitter here.