“We’re kinda like that Robin Hood fella. We rob bikes from the rich, and sell ‘em back to the rich.” That’s the sound of your two new favourite TV heroes, Conor McPherson (Alex Murphy) and Jock (Chris Walley), who run riot south of the border in Cork, with little regard for the law and even less regard for knowledge and common sense. The amusingly dim duo were first introduced to us in The Young Offenders (currently available on Netflix UK), but now, BBC Three has ordered a whole run of small-screen outings for the pair. TV spin-offs from movies tend to be for big name franchises, but from the first episode of this series, it’s immediately clear why this small Irish comedy was snapped up: it’s absolutely hilarious.
Rather than retread the events of the original film, the show goes down a different path, instead inventing a whole new heap of messes for the best friends to land themselves in. And, on the basis of four of the series’ six episodes, they’re not about to run out of ideas anytime soon. Not that it would matter; from bike thieving and school-skipping to fridge-hunting and girl-wooing, the plots are significantly smaller in scale than the movie, which saw them tracking down a lost stash of cocaine. It soon becomes apparent that the strength of the show isn’t its narrative, but its remarkably precise character work.
Conor and Jock are wonderfully conceived and even better portrayed by Alex Murphy and Chris Walley. Conor, the shorter of the two, looks up to Jock in all senses of the word, and Jock’s influence is constantly visible: they both have the same hair, wear the same clothes, sport the same bling, and the same failed attempt at a moustache. The actors know their characters inside and out, able to carry out some superb physical comedy and slapstick set pieces – whether Conor would jump off a building if Josh told him to is settled within minutes of the opening credits. But they sell their intimacy too; the mates’ friendship is heartwarming sincere, to the point where Conor jumping off a building becomes endearing as well as laugh-out-loud stupid. Walley’s Josh swaggers about with the confidence of a kid who can walk the walk but can’t talk the talk, while Murphy’s Conor can’t really do either; as Walley looks blankly on at the world or grins at his latest plan to annoy local Guard Sergeant Healy (Dominic MacHale), Murphy repeatedly scrunches his face up in confusion and frustration.
Peter Foott, writer of the movie, knows how to get the best from his talented leads, and his fingerprints are all over this, as he writes, directs and exec-produces the whole show. With Sing Street producer Martina Niland also on board, the 30-minute episodes give the premise enough space to zoom out from the central bromance of the movie and build a wholly realistic world around it. Not unlike BBC Three’s This Country, The Young Offenders’ sense of place is brilliantly authentic, from the bicycle chases through the streets to the awkward attempts at discipline by the local school.
They all collide come the second episode, as Conor and Jock attempt to impress Siobhan and Linda at school, the two daughters of Principal Barry Walsh (played by PJ Gallagher with a deliciously pathetic petulance). A kissing scene in the local park is brilliantly uncomfortable, as Conor tries to work out what to do with his hands, while a day bunking off school is laughably dull and realistically embarrassing. A confrontation at a BBQ, though, manages to be both entertainingly silly and oddly sentimental, as we begin to realise that there’s more to these teens than meet the eye; judging any of these people by their surface is unfair.
Nowhere is that better demonstrated than by Hilary Rose, who steals the show as Conor’s mother, Mairead. A long-suffering parent with a surprising amount of patience, she works down the fish stall to make ends meet – and her determination to provide for her boy by herself has fostered a hard-talking edge that echoes her own son’s attitude, giving her oodles of delightfully spiky dialogue. The hint of a possible romance between her and Sergeant Healey is proof of the potential the show has to take its ensemble in surprising new directions, and one kitchen-themed detour leads us to an unexpectedly poignant theme of family and acceptance. The result is a comedy that manages to be blisteringly quick – a reverse-psychology stand-off with local bully Billy Murphy is inspired – and unabashedly sweet. One standout sequence in a cemetery, involving an impromptu musical number, manages to be both at once. Going toe to toe with Channel 4’s Derry Girls for laughs and a unique comic voice, the result is a series that shines a welcome spotlight on some of Ireland’s brightest new talents. Put simply, The Young Offenders is criminally funny.
The Young Offenders Season 1 is on BBC iPlayer until February 2019.