'Derry Girls': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Welcome the reign of the female wanker!
12/21/2018

Netflix's raucous sitcom explores the lives of four cheeky Northern Irish teen girls growing up under English oppression in the 1990s.

Five teenagers — four mouthy girls and an unobtrusive boy — get to work scrubbing down an old Irish fish and chip shop, paying penance for a harebrained scheme that nearly got them banned from their favorite fast-food joint. Against Supergrass' Britpop classic "Alright," they triumphantly collect rubbish, burnish floors and scour windows until…. "It's still sticky. Why is it still sticky?" one of the girls growls. "Is it worse than when we started?!" Well, the soap was mayonnaise. The realization that they were useless all along is riotously crushing, but not as hopeless as when they sneak upstairs to the shop owner's flat and catch one of their own incongruously writhing to rave music and sucking down liquor she found in a cabinet, her trenchant won't-do spirit positively infectious. A moment later, she's set the curtains on fire trying to light up some shots. Welcome to Derry Girls, my favorite comedy of the year.

Netflix's cracker Irish import, a hit earlier this year on Britain's Channel 4, celebrates what it means to be a female dickhead. Like a gender-swapped take on British teen-raunch classic The Inbetweeners, this six-episode, gloriously foul-mouthed sitcom follows the exploits of four Northern Irish girls — and their wimpy English male tagalong — in the late 1990s as they get into mischief at their Catholic high school and just generally make life more difficult for themselves. Set during the Troubles, a low-level guerrilla war in Northern Ireland between Irish nationalists and British loyalists, the show is also ostensibly about growing up in a hotbed of terrorism, oppression and ethno-nationalist conflict. But, you know, laugh-out-loud hilarious.

2018 has officially been the Year of the Female Wanker. From Motherland's obnoxiously self-interested Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) to Blockers' prudish momicopter (Leslie Mann) to Superstore's smugly righteous Amy (America Ferrera), we're finally starting to see gender equality for neurotic prigs and their provocateur friends. For far too long, British men have held the baton for hubristic TV killjoys you gleefully root to fail: It's high time we delight in stomping our boots on selfish and squirming girl jerks, too. Sure, these Derry girls are adorable, but forget "likability" — their episodic humiliations are our comedy gold.

Derry Girls' chief wanker is Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), a rubber-faced human grimace who chafes at every injustice, from English tyranny to her own status as a beta who's bullied even by the first-year girls. She is our everyfool, a blonde George Costanza from whom we derive great pleasure when her wild endeavors dissolve into chaos. (Like the time she witnesses a dog urinate on the head of a Madonna figure in church, but lets her town believe these were miraculous tears because she lusts after the investigating priest.) Still, Erin is far from the tail-chasing horndogs of similarly ribald sitcoms: she's still squeamish about sex when it's convenient for her ego.

Her friends exist across the spectrum of teenage lunacy. Her second-in-command, Clare (Nicola Coughlan), is a sweet-faced apoplectic swot who crumbles into tears the moment her ambitions seem out the window. ("Sweet sufferin' Jesus, it's the morning already?! What are we going to do?!" she panics, 23 energy drinks into an all-night cram session.) Erin lives with her flinty-voiced weirdo cousin Orla (Louisa Harland, a deft comedienne), who straddles the line between ethereal and dumb, and they're all constantly dodging the motormouth barbs of id Michelle (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell), a course-tongued chav with enviably enormous hoop earrings and swagger to spare.

Michelle's mousy cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) has just moved to Ireland and enrolled in their all-girl Catholic high school for fear of his safety at the local boys school. His mother went to England to get an abortion and never came back. "Never got the abortion either," Michelle giggles, when introducing him to her friends. "I didn't actually know that," he laments. The girls are hilariously abusive to him no matter his mostly innocuous comments, the very fact of his nationality his most dreadful crime. His nickname? "Ya English prick."

The writing by creator Lisa McGee is top-notch, the show's searing one-liners and tonally perfect '90s soundtrack as fantastic as its predominantly female cast. (It's been a great year for female-led ensembles: Harlots, The Deuce, Claws and GLOW all rocked their second seasons thanks to the chemistry of their sprawling players.) Beyond the core characters, Erin's harried martinet mother, Mary (Tara Lynne O'Neill), her glamorous dingbat aunt, Sarah (Kathy Kiera Clarke), the girls' perky nemesis, Jenny Joyce (Leah O'Rourke) and their school's lovably cantankerous headmistress, Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney), all crackle thanks to scripts and direction (by Michael Lennox) unafraid to make women actual people.

McSweeney in particular plays Sister Michael with incendiary guile drier than your desiccated gob after the cinnamon challenge. "I think it's safe to say that we all lost a bit of respect for you there, Clare," she deadpans when the girl rats on her friends. Far from the stereotypically officious nun who wouldn't brook a lick of nonsense from her charges, she's more exasperated than power hungry, and is as much on our side as we are on that of the girls. Following a squeaky rendition of "The Rose" at the school talent show, she announces the next act. "You know, every year I sit backstage listening to the singers and it really makes me realize…just how talented the professionals who originally recorded these tracks were."

This irreverent series also gets away with a rare feat: showcasing a tense political environment without being possessed by it. The show delicately balances the nuts and bolts of a city under subjugation while also depicting how life just continues on during trauma. In between scenes of raucous misadventure, we see rifle-toting soldiers on every bridge and street corner. They are background, but every once in a while the audience is pulled back into these characters' reality: When welcoming a group of teens visiting from Chernobyl, Sister Michael tells them not to "worry themselves too much about the whole 'civil war sectarian conflict' that's carrying on. There's only one thing you need to know. We're the goodies."

"Poor Irish Childhood" is a genre of its own, from My Left Foot to Angela's Ashes to Moon Boy. But Derry Girls upends the presumption of noble misery growing up on the emerald isle. Only a feckin' eejit wouldn't be charmed.

Cast: Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Nicola Coughlan, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Louisa Harland, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Tara Lynne O'Neill, Tommy Tiernan, Ian McElhinney, Siobhan McSweeney
Creator: Lisa McGee
Director: Michael Lennox

Executive Producers: Lisa McGee, Caroline Leddy, Liz Lewin, Jimmy Mulville
Premieres: Friday, Dec. 21 (Netflix)