In teen movies there’s usually a scene where the protagonist explains the many cliques in their high school. There’s always a gaggle of jocks, nerds and cheerleaders, but some movies have niche groups like the “white rastas” and “future MBAs” (Ten Things I Hate About You) or “The Plastics” (Mean Girls). These assigned personas, though limiting, foreshadow their misadventures, conflicts and tell the audience who to cheer for.
Derry Girls is different. Set in Derry (or Londonderry) in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, we follow our squad of four teenage Catholic girls and their “wee English fella” as they navigate life in the 1990s.
There’s Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), who fancies herself a worldly, liberal writer except she is also insufferable. Erin’s cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), who is a bit loopy and cannot read a room before she speaks. Clare (Nicola Coughlan) means well but is the first to cave in in the face of authority. Rounding out the group is foul-mouthed, sex-crazed Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and her English cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) whom the girls have reluctantly adopted.
Derry Girls became a surprise hit globally when it first debuted in 2018. Its biggest appeal is that it accurately captures life in a particular time and place. This being the 90s in Northern Ireland, bombings and car-jackings disrupt their daily routines, whether it’s attending school or keeping appointments at the tanning salon. There are references to Macaulay Culkin and Bob Geldof. The soundtrack heavily features The Cranberries and The Corrs. It is nostalgia done right and an insight into what it was like to grow up amidst conflict.
But the understated reason for its appeal is that none of the characters are depicted in the popular/unpopular or the bad/good dichotomy. Instead, they are still trying to work out their identity and how they fit in, in Derry, their school and their families. As a result, they commit faux pax, rage against authorities and dig themselves into further trouble. James has the added issue of being male and English in a Catholic girls school. In some of the best episodes, all these identities collide.
There is something refreshing about seeing teenagers meander listlessly on screen instead of being self-assured, tech-savvy young adults or superheroes with secret identities. This is also an in-joke because all five main actors are in their mid-20s. Coughlan, best known for her role in period drama Bridgerton, was closer to 30 during production. But on screen, our protagonists do not have a lifelong quest or a time-sensitive task, they do not seek self-improvement and they only half-heartedly want to change the world. They are painfully ordinary and that in itself is unusual.
For example, in the pilot, Erin casually puts on a denim jacket to go to school instead of her blazer. It was supposed to be an expression of her individuality, but she caves under her mum’s withering look. When a denim-clad Clare sees that her friends bailed on their agreed outfit, she peels her jacket off. “I’m not being an individual on me own,” she says scornfully. It’s a 10-second interaction that encapsulates the appealing silliness of the show.
Derry Girls stands out for showing teenage girls as teenage girls, warts and all. Which means, sometimes they are clueless and sometimes they are cruel. Often though, they are a mix of horniness and decorum, like when Michelle wonders if Protestants have more sex moves than them because they “are not as fucked up about sex”. Her friends sputter at the blasphemy but this sort of humour puts Derry Girls in the same company as other outstanding offerings, such as Booksmart (streaming at SBS On Demand) and Never Have I Ever, which put female friendship and experience front and centre. Are the characters perfect? No. Are they universally liked? Also no.
It takes excellent writing and acting to build a show with imperfect and occasionally cringey characters. And Derry Girls is joyful and ridiculous because it reminds us that teenagers’ pre-frontal cortex is still developing. They make poor decisions and experiment with risky behaviour. It’s the perfect fodder for television.
See double episodes of Derry Girls Monday nights on SBS VICELAND, with season 2 following hot on the heels of season 1. Episodes will be available at SBS On Demand for 14 days after they air. Start with episode 1: