In the opening episode of season two of the runaway Irish hit Derry Girls, the show’s gang of lovably dorky Catholic schoolgirls (plus their sole male tag-along) prepares for a wilderness retreat mixer with students from a nearby Protestant school. It’s the mid-’90s, approaching the end of the decades-long political struggle in Northern Ireland known as the “Troubles,” and the weekend getaway—optimistically called Friends Across the Barricades—is meant to help the teens grapple with their similarities and differences.
Our main protagonist Erin, played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson, nobly informs her mother that they are going on the trip to bridge the divide and pursue peace. Later, free from the watchful parental eye, the foul-mouthed Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) cheekily exclaims, “We’re doing it for peace, alright—a piece of that fine Protestant ass!” High-fives abound. And so, the scene is set for a second season of misbegotten hijinks, scolding at the hands of impatient nuns, and the kind of fervent friendship that only exists between teenage girls.
The hilarity of Derry Girls, which premiered on Britain's Channel 4 in January 2018 before taking off stateside via Netflix, hinges on finding the humor in dark circumstances. The residents of Derry are accustomed to the violence that has permeated their everyday lives for years, and as a result it often exists in the background. When rifle-toting soldiers evacuate a movie theater, all one character can think about is how she will have to wait until The Usual Suspects comes out on video to find out Keyser Söze’s true identity.
The normalcy with which Derry Girls regards its violent reality also reflects the mindset of its teenaged protagonists. Teenagers are inevitably, harmlessly selfish, regardless of whether or not they are coming of age in a military-occupied state. At the forefronts of the minds of Erin, Michelle, Clare, Orla, and James are their own seemingly frivolous problems, like finding a ride to a concert in Belfast or preventing unsuspecting mourners at a wake from accidentally eating drug-laced scones. In one episode, Erin writes a tone-deaf, yet thoroughly earnest poem about how the Troubles going on outside are nothing compared to the troubles in her own mind—troubles that include fielding rumors that her crush’s model girlfriend is going to be on Baywatch. (“They don’t have people from Derry on Baywatch, okay? We’re just too pasty.”)
Lisa McGee, the show’s writer and producer, is from Derry and was herself navigating the ups and downs of adolescence at the culmination of the Northern Irish conflict. Her quick-as-a-whip dialogue makes the six, 23-minute episodes of the season irresistibly easy to binge in one sitting. At times it feels like a movie, which, according to a radio interview with cast member Tommy Tiernan, may eventually be on the way.
McGee has said that she looks to the ’90s teen drama My So-Called Life as a primary influence for her work. It is easy to see traces of the tragically short-lived ABC series in the aesthetics of both seasons of Derry Girls, but one episode in the new season is essentially a tribute to Winnie Holzman. In the second episode, an unconventional substitute teacher named Ms. De Brún breezes into town, tears up the Derry girls’ class assignments, and changes the way they view education for a few short days.
Sound familiar? The sixth episode of My So-Called Life, titled “The Substitute,” follows the same Dead Poets Society-esque plot. In McGee’s version, Erin and co. dutifully paint on winged eyeliner in the school bathroom to match their new hero—much like how Claire Danes’ Angela Chase begins chewing on a toothpick to mimic her teacher’s unique habit.
Of course, at its root Derry Girls is a comedy, unburdened by the melodrama of My So-Called Life. While Angela Chase’s bubble is burst when she learns that her beloved teacher is a loser who has been dodging child support bills, the Derry girls must part with their teacher simply because she gets a better paying job elsewhere. Disillusioned, Erin asks, “But what happened to living for the moment? What happened to life should be spontaneous?” With a sigh, Ms. De Brún replies, “Yeah, I know, but I’m buying a house and mortgage rates are absolutely crippling at the minute.”
If one were looking for something to criticize about the series, they could point to the apparent lack of narrative arc. But people don’t watch a show like Derry Girls for the plot. The Derry Girls viewing experience is about the nostalgic Cranberries-heavy soundtrack, the physical comedy, the delightful zingers packed with Irish slang, and the relatable young female characters. If I was lucky enough to have been able to watch this show when I was 16, I’d have spent hours debating with friends which Derry girl best matched my personality. (Instead, I was stuck with Girls, crossing my fingers that I wasn’t a Marnie.)
Another potential point for criticism is the anticlimactic follow up to perpetually-anxious Clare’s (Nicola Coughlan) coming out as gay at the end of the first season. Though Clare’s queer identity is mentioned in passing throughout the season, often as the punchline of a joke, it does not factor heavily into the plot or even the emotional development of her character. However, McGee has a simple answer to this, telling Vulture, “Everyone kept asking who could her girlfriend be, and I thought, ‘She’s still Clare. She’s still a loser. She’s not going to suddenly get this hot girlfriend!’”
The sentiment exemplifies season two of Derry Girls—not much has changed within the world of the show, but we don’t really care. Michelle is still boy-crazy, Orla is still a space cadet, and James, the only boy at his all-girls school, is still the punching bag. The show still manages to straddle the line between gleefully funny and deeply moving, effectively adding an extra dose of the latter this time around. And yet, in the real world, things could not be more different for McGee and the Derry Girls crew since the show’s premiere last winter.
As McGee told Vulture, the season one premiere was a small affair in the morning with a modest guest list of friends and family. When the second season came out this spring, paparazzi turned out in droves to greet the cast of budding stars. “This year, it was like red carpets on live news,” McGee said. “It was crazy and people were lining up, taking selfies with the cast.” There is even a giant mural of the main fivesome splashed on the wall of a building in Derry, signaling the show’s influential presence in the small town and beyond.
At one point in the season finale, a minor character, over a soundtrack of swelling music, says poignantly, “For once, the world will be watching us for all the right reasons.” Though she is referring to President Bill Clinton’s 1995 visit to Northern Ireland, she could just as well be talking about Derry Girls.