Every now and then, a TV show comes along with a voice that feels utterly unique. Derry Girls is one of them. From Northern Irish writer Lisa McGee, the Channel 4 sitcom has a neat premise: it charts the coming of age of a group of schoolgirls in Londonderry during The Troubles in the early 1990s.
British Army check points, Murder She Wrote and Nirvana all combine to create a wonderful melting pot of identity and pop culture references, which McGee delves into and draws out four fantastic characters: Erin (Saoirse Monica Jackson), her cousin, Orla (Louisa Harland), their kind-hearted friend, Clare (Nicola Coughlan), and the troublemaking Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), who has her damp English dishcloth cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) staying with her.
There’s a wonderful balance of personal drama and the wider tensions that’s established from the off: the opening episode sees a bomb on the bridge, which on the one hand means violent turmoil, but, more importantly, means heavy traffic for everyone and the schoolbus being stopped by soldiers. Meanwhile, Erin is having to face her first day at school, on the same day that her cousin is reading her diary. Other challenges along the way include the visit of Uncle Colm, trying to get out of an exam, and attempting to smuggle the Quinn family out of Derry before the Orange Parades start – a mix of big and small scenarios that are milked for every single laugh possible.
The presentation is sparky and witty throughout – that diary entry, for example, keeps turning out to be what we think is Erin’s narration – but it’s the character work that really impresses. Would-be bad-girl Michelle fails to intimidate even the younger pupils from the year below, while the arrival of Katya from Chenobyl throws up some gloriously observed group dynamics, not least because she has her sights set on the endearingly pathetic James – who was moved to Our Lady Immaculate College because his family was concerned about him attending an all-boys school. Saoirse Monica Jackson (Broken) anchors the whole thing with a brilliant lead turn, managing to be both loud-mouthed and likeable – so when the season climaxes with her taking control of the school newspaper, you’re both wincing at her self-centred idiocy and cheering her on at every terrible headline idea.
The result is a coming-of-age comedy that’s both universal and wonderfully specific, in a way that has made Norway’s Young and Promising a similarly international hit. McGee doesn’t tone down the craic, and nor does she overplay or understate the absurdity of growing up in a town where the painful legacy of past atrocities still lingers on in a way that’s oddly ordinary, and complex national conflicts don’t cloud youth’s simple dilemmas. Laugh-out-loud funny and performed with heartfelt sincerity, you’ll want to be friends with these Derry Girls immediately.
Derry Girls is available on All 4 as a box set. It will return to Channel 4 for Season 2 in 2019.