“Watching the Derry Girls covet hot guys, set curtains on fire, sneak tequila, and altogether act in ‘unladylike’ ways provides no end of amusement.”
Title: Derry Girls
Creator: Lisa McGee 👩🏼🇬🇧
Director: Michael Lennox 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writer: Lisa McGee 👩🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Last year, Derry Girls gave Channel 4 its biggest comedy launch in nearly five years, and it’s easy to see why. Derry-born showrunner Lisa McGee entertains with ease, throwing brash teen hijinx into Northern Ireland during the late ‘90s, when tensions still ran high between Irish nationalists and British loyalists. The contrast makes for constant chemistry, as audiences follow four raucous young women more interested in taking the piss than in following the news.
Memorable characters and this specific setting gives Derry Girls its addictive hook. McGee points out that “a lot of stuff about Northern Ireland is very male” and her antidote perfectly builds on spiritual forebears, nearly all of which feature male leads like British teen comedy The Inbetweeners, Northern Ireland’s Father Ted, or Dublin’s Sing Street (2016).
Underneath this golden premise, however, the writing becomes much more familiar. The first two episodes even feature the same arc of having our young troublemakers stumble their way into a disastrous situation, only to get caught red-handed. By the time the device is used a second time, I felt more déjà-vu than I did the urge to laugh.
As for acting, each teenager offers a fantastically unique persona but performances feel uneven. In particular, line deliveries by Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) and Clare (Nicola Coughlan) lean towards exaggeration and pulled faces, veering slapstick while the perfectly balanced quirkiness of Orla (Louisa Harland) and scene-stealer Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) give more breathing room for the written jokes and punchy dialogue to shine.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
McGee breaks ground in male-dominated genres, bringing a counter-narrative to teen sex comedies and works set in Northern Ireland. It's a delight to watch four young women poke fun at their proverbial punching bag of Michelle's cousin, an English lad named James (Dylan Llewellyn). Watching the squad covet hot guys, set curtains on fire, sneak tequila, and altogether act in “unladylike” ways provides no end of amusement.
If the leading ladies and their vastly different personalities aren’t enough, then the sheer numbers ought to do it. Women flesh out this universe, from the all girls’ Catholic school where Erin and friends interact almost exclusively with other women to scenes at home, where Erin and her cousin Orla live with their mothers plus two men: Granda Joe (Ian McElhinney) and Erin’s father Gerry (Tommy Tiernan). The lens of Derry Girls easily centers women, but their antics are universally ridiculous.
Not a single person of color makes it into Derry Girls, but this is also accurate to its real life setting. In 2001, less than 1% of the Northern Ireland population was non-white.
Normally, the mere defense of saying that “it's realistic” isn’t enough at Mediaversity to offset the fact that writers, producers, and studios make conscious decisions every day to support white stories in a media landscape already saturated with them. However, in the case of Derry Girls, the spotlight on Northern Ireland actually does present a fresh cultural perspective, so I’m less inclined to sink this grade entirely.
Queerness comes up in Derry Girls through a couple ways. A running gag starts from the pilot, where characters casually assume James is gay. He meekly protests that he isn’t, every time, and the sheer indifference he’s given never fails to earn a giggle. The joke is hardly creative or new—the BBC’s Sherlock comes to mind, where John Watson faces the same assumption and reacts in similar fashion—but McGee’s writing never feels homophobic. The device is just another way to continually poke fun at the way locals see James as an English prat, and for my part, I could watch this kind of affable ribbing against the English all day long.
In a more substantial sense, the finale (Season 1, Episode 6) sees one of the main characters come out as a lesbian. The story feels tight and well-written, and even if the thread spontaneously appears and seems to neatly conclude within one episode, with little foreshadowing or context, it’s welcome all the same. If McGee can find a way to expand on this character’s sexuality through the same romantic flops and fails that Erin and Michelle suffer, then I’ll be glad to score this higher in future seasons.
Mediaversity Grade: C+ 3.50/5
Derry Girls takes a few episodes to get comfortable, but by the time we’re closing out the season to the utterly effective tune of “Dreams” by The Cranberries, the chemistry feels solid. Thankfully, Brits have taken a shine. Right after the show’s huge premiere—before its second episode had even aired—Channel 4 announced plans to renew. In fact, filming for the second season has already wrapped with signs pointing to a third season being greenlit. That’s cracker news, if I ever heard it.