Stranger Things owns all the oxygen for period-piece teen TV, but Ireland’s impossibly charming Derry Girls deserves as much acclaim, writes Duncan Greive.
There’s a reason why high school is the backdrop to so much fantastic television. That cusp between childhood and the adult world is ripe with dramatic possibility. Relationships are made which last a lifetime – but the scars of those years linger as long, too.
The 90s and early 00s saw a clutch of iconic shows set in those years air, everything from Beverly Hills 90210 to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to The OC to Skins. The period seemed to wane as the golden age of television dawned, with the rise of the tortured anti-hero (post-Sopranos) punting us forward 20 years in lifecycles. Teens and parents switched roles from protagonists to foils at best. It felt like a concession that the teens who had been the primary audience for those earlier classic shows had moved on to YouTube, Snapchat and other post-television platforms.
Yet the past few years have seen the teen come roaring back, often as not on streaming platforms, often as not with a recent period past which ensures they can, much as The Simpsons did back in the day, cater to both younger audiences and their parents. The End of the Fucking World, Stranger Things and Sex Education have all to a greater or lesser extent mined this territory. Yet while all are brilliant, there’s a less-heralded show which is, to my mind, the best-executed expression of the genre to date.
Derry Girls, the second season of which recently dropped on Netflix, chronicles the life of six teenagers entering the final years of high school in Derry, Northern Ireland, in the early-mid ‘90s. The period is aptly chosen for a number of reasons. It’s far enough in the past that it evokes the adolescence of many 30- and 40-somethings today, while also recent enough that many of the sociocultural references (the Spice Girls, Bill Clinton) retain a currency today.
The way these are deployed is a big part of what makes Derry Girls such a blast: huge pop hits blare out at regular intervals, and relationships with pop stars and political figures are played with a bone-deep knowledge. In the second season, we learn of the law that Gerry Adams, then-leader of Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA), could have his face but not his voice broadcast on TV. This absurd-but-true fact leads to speculation among the Derry Girls locals that the British government has decided his voice is just too dangerously sexy to be heard.
Adams’ location in the series points to a larger backdrop: Derry was central to ‘the troubles’, that period of Anglo-Irish relations which saw regular kidnappings, bombings and clampdowns on freedoms in response. This level of sectarian violence reads as extraordinary and tragic in the UK and Ireland as we now know them, but the beauty of Derry Girls is in how mundane it all feels. This was clearly creator Lisa McGee’s life, and she adroitly shows that crushes and pranks loomed far larger than the men with automatic weapons who studded the city.
Ultimately though, as much as these elements help the show pop, it’s the charisma of the five core teens who make it so irresistible. Set at an all-girl Catholic school, led by nuns and dripping in religious iconography, the show focuses on five girls who are friends and family, joined by one boy who has the misfortune of being English, and admitted to the school because A) life would have been actively dangerous for him at the boy’s school in that era and B) it makes for a great, gently-deployed running gag.
The Derry Girls gang do typical teenage things: get jobs, get horny, sneak out to concerts, break into takeaways, go to funerals and get drunk with their teachers. All of it both ordinary and shot through with the thrill of doing it for the first time. It’s corny to emphasise the Irish accent, but when coupled with electric writing and the biting slang of the era it creates dialogue which crackles along. The minor characters – a savage grandfather, a cowed husband, a weary headmistress – are all too the products of immense love and care by the show’s creators. Everyone who ever speaks a line feels fleshed out to an extraordinary degree – this is in large part why each of the six 20-odd minute long episodes never loses momentum for a second.
In some ways Derry Girls is another show about nothing. It contrasts mightily with the anti-hero era, in that the characters leave each season much as they came in. Yet they also grow up, and reach exquisitely-rendered apexes. Truly, few creators have ever aced the conclusions of a season like Lisa McGee, and she’s now done it twice.
In so doing she has created a show which feels like a throwback and bracingly modern at the same time, a perfect little capsule which captures what it was like to grow up in her city at a moment in time. It’s both extremely specific and part of the universal experience of teenage life, and feels like an instant part of the canon of this genre, one which briefly fell from favour, but is suddenly hugely vital once again.
Both seasons of Derry Girls are streaming now on Netflix.
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