Here in the United States, older Millenials and up might recall the Northern Irish Troubles from when it was headline news. Back in the 1960s through the 1990s, centuries-old tensions boiled to record heights between Irish Catholics and more British-identifying Protestants, which turned the region into one of the most politically volatile on the planet. Although the 1998 Good Friday agreement overwhelmingly deescalated the situation, the underlying issues never entirely went away, even before Brexit brought the Irish border question back to the fore with a vengeance.
For those of us outside of Ireland and the UK too young to recall the Troubles from the news, any knowledge of this conflict likely comes from movies and television, from IRA-centric dramas like In The Name of the Father, The Crying Game, and Steve McQueen’s Hunger (speaking from personal experience, when it comes to Ireland, the average American history education mentions how the island ran out of potatoes in the 1840s causing most residents to either starve or emigrate to the US, and that’s about it). All things considered, Northern Ireland has maintained a pretty bleak reputation in popular culture, a bleak land of guerilla warfare and the occasional serial killer (see: The Fall).
And then there’s Derry Girls. Written and created by Derry native Lisa McGee, the Channel 4 series (distributed by Netflix outside the UK and Ireland) is without precedent, a teen comedy set against the backdrop of the Troubles in which the fraught political landscape infuses practically every scene but never overtakes the narrative. Largely informed by McGee’s own experience growing up in 1990s Derry as well as tales from friends and family, the show strikes a delicate balance of finding humor in a very serious and scary situation without treating the situation itself as a joke. It’s a series in which, for example, a movie theater getting evacuated due to a bomb threat provides the setup for a B plot involving a character spending the entire episode driven to distraction over the mystery of Keyser Söze because she never got to see the end of The Usual Suspects.
At once irreverent and deeply considerate in its handling of sensitive subjects, Derry Girls quickly became a record-breaking hit in Northern Ireland, where it’s become a source of pride. Particularly in Derry, which earlier this year paid homage to the show’s protagonist, teenage aspiring writer Erin (Saorise-Monica Jackson) and her rag-tag group of friends, the eponymous “Derry girls” — eccentric cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), chronically anxious Clare (Nicola Coughlan), the wonderfully shameless Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and her cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn), born and raised in England with the accent to prove it — with a gigantic mural. More cult favorite than a mainstream hit abroad, the show’s first season nonetheless struck an impressive balance between unabashed cultural specificity and universality, not diluting its depiction of Derry for outsider audiences in terms of accent, dialect, or cultural references but still managing to be chock full of humor with widespread appeal.
As someone who falls between the two extremes of local native and total outsider, there are times when my experience and enjoyment of the show are largely informed by personal experience. A scene from the new season in which the girls have a run-in with a group of Irish Travelers, for instance, had me practically doubled over because it is the single most accurate depiction I have ever seen of the particular mix of prejudice and fear that surrounds that community. Would I find it as funny if it didn’t bring back childhood memories of being warned I would be left on the side of the road for the Travelers if I didn’t behave? I don’t know. But what I can say for certain is that I know people who have no idea what all the July 12th drama is about or who Gerry Adams is but think Derry Girls is hilarious anyway (even if they need to watch it with subtitles).
If anything, the second season of Derry Girls (which aired earlier this year across the Atlantic and just dropped on Netflix US on August 2nd), displays an even more masterful balance of the specific and universal, more consistent and seemingly self-aware in its use of pop culture references (Carrie, Take That, the list goes on) and universal teenage dilemmas (dating, exams, overbearing parents) to make the very specific environment of 1990s Derry something relatable for wide audiences.
With its short, six-episode seasons and half-hour runtime, Derry Girls is decidedly episodic in its approach, for better and for worse. The second season, much like the first, does not really have an arc to speak of, though certain narrative threads and special guest characters do reappear, like the well-intentioned if self-absorbed Hot Priest, Peter (Peter Campion), a season one highlight who returns in the season two premiere as a mediator at a summer camp meant to foster friendships between Protestant and Catholic teens, and the majestically mustachioed Dennis (Paul Mallon), the short-tempered corner shop proprietor who never manages to have a run-in with Erin and friends that doesn’t end in shouting.
Like all great second seasons, the new installment of Derry Girls expands on all the things that made the first season so good. There’s more screen time for the iconic Sister Michael, the Exorcist-reading, Judo-practicing, razor-tongued headmistress of Our Lady Immaculate (Siobhan McSweeney), as well as the shenanigans of Erin’s highly opinionated Granda Joe (the delightful Ian McElhinney). However, it is mildly noticeable that in emphasizing the characters and qualities that represented the real highlights of the first season, one individual who gets lost in the weeds a bit the second time around is none other than Erin herself.
As the connecting thread between her extended family and the group of friends that make up the show’s primary cast of characters, Erin is the series’ de facto protagonist, but in season two the status feels more honorary than an accurate description of her narrative role, which is on the whole secondary and reactive. Michelle, with her pleasure-seeking life philosophy and utter lack of filter, is usually the one driving the plot forward this time around, dragging Erin and the others along in various schemes involving sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll (okay, so technically, it’s pop music, but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it).
Meanwhile, compulsive worrier Clare often provides the strongest opposing force within the group, leaving Erin as a supporting player on one side or the other, or sometimes trying to bridge the gap with one foot in either camp, depending on the situation. With regards to the rest of the crew, Orla, who’s mentally away with the fairies more often than not, adds a delightful dose of absurdity to the mix. James, whose struggles with his liminal outsider status are treated with a good deal more nuance, but just as much humor, as they were in the first season, becomes a somewhat ironic MVP. He proves to be the heart of the second season, the only character with an emotional arc that has a real payoff.
Derry Girls is both exemplary and somewhat unique in its commitment to prioritizing comedic set-up and pay-off within each individual episode (many recent comedies instead take the long-term investment approach that requires getting to know characters well before the jokes really start packing a punch). The “episode first” approach in the context of a six-episode season composed of 24-minute episodes leaves minimal room for anything resembling a character arc for even the biggest players, most notably Erin. Various romantic entanglements, for instance — in her case thus far they have been mostly restricted to one-sided crushes, subtext, and dialogue regarding incidents occurring offscreen — are consistently introduced in one episode and then utterly forgotten by the next. It’s not so much that this absence detracts from the viewing experiment so much as begs the question of what else the series might have been able to accomplish in a world where the episodes or the seasons were just a little bit longer.
At once acerbic and sentimental, Derry Girls is a clear-eyed (and hilariously funny) love letter to a place and time elsewhere relegated to bleak tales of political oppression and suffering. It turns the very specific experience of teenage girlhood against the politically fraught background of 1990s Derry into something widely relatable, a welcome reminder that even the most specific, personal stories can be universal in their appeal — even if you might potentially need to turn on closed captioning to follow along.