Growing up is an ugly, awkward affair. And teenage life set against a backdrop of nineties popular culture, Catholicism and a civil war is still, unfortunately, teenage life, as is Channel 4’s hit comedy Derry Girls shows. It follows a rambunctious quartet of girls – and all their misadventures – living in Derry, Northern Ireland during the later stages of the Troubles. Erin Quinn – a protagonist self-aware to a fault – is joined by her oddball cousin Orla, highly strung Clare and the irrepressible, vivacious Michelle, whose “wee English fella” cousin James tags along for the ride.
The girls, James included, stampede their way through life, navigating unpopularity, Take That, God and exams without ease nor grace. From inventing a godly encounter to hitchhiking to Belfast for Gary Barlow, the eccentric, gregarious fivesome are never far from a catastrophe that has very little to do with ongoing civil war. Hang ups of teenage life plague their day to day far more than any Troubles related issues, but they persevere with unmatched bravado, unfazed by either the warfare or their perpetual ability to infuriate those who surround them.
Never absent and fantastically funny is the bracing, harsh humour of Derry. At any given moment the girls are bitingly, brutally cruel, whether it be to each other or one of the many opinionated, obdurate people whom they live amongst. This doesn’t simply stop with the five friends, but extends to their parents, classmates and teachers, particularly one headmistress Sister Michael (“if anyone is feeling anxious or nervous; please, please do not come crying to me”). Cast members have alluded to some jokes being unrecognisable to the naked eye; hidden away within scenes are city in-jokes that have further cemented the show as a swearing, kilt-wearing love letter to Derry.
Derry itself is depicted as a city that vibrates with pride and a sarcastic disposition. “Derry is class,” Michelle declares in the very first episode, every bone in her body formed by the collision of humour and war. The girls, often indifferent to the backdrop of the Troubles, revel in their collective Derry-ness, never failing to present the city as a place of life and laughter. And beneath the scathing humour taken from Derry’s own streets, an unabashed and unfaltering loyalty is present. A loyalty to the city, and a loyalty to one other. The girls grow before us, the cogs in their heads visibly turning and fitting into each other, leaning on and loving one another between the brutal, mocking hilarity.
With its dead-on observations of getting older, the show is at its core an acutely funny and often painfully accurate coming-of-age story. Growing up is laid out in all its ugliness and awkwardness; the show’s brutal approach to teenage life cuts away the stereotypes of those awkward years, and instead we are left with a raw, precise commentary on how frustrating it is to be sixteen years old. Sometimes moving, sometimes hilarious, Derry Girls captures the specific notion that being a tricky, graceless teenager happens to everyone, even as a war blares in the distance.
Image: Rossographer via Geograph