When it was originally on: 2018-present
Original network: Channel 4 (UK), Netflix (US)
Where you can stream it: Netflix
Had I seen it before: Yes! I’ve seen every episode.
What IMDb says: The personal exploits of a 16-year-old girl and her family and friends during the Troubles in the early 1990s.
Why I picked it: I made up my mind somewhat early on that I would include some “British Imports,” i.e. shows that achieved a fair amount of popularity in the U.S. despite the fact that it wasn’t originally intended for American audiences. Derry Girls is one of my favorite things currently on Netflix. Not just one of my favorite Netflix exclusive programs, literally one of my favorite things on Netflix. I tend to have at least one full, proper belly laugh every episode.
It’s also particularly fascinating to me how Derry Girls maintains a relatively light and playful tone despite its backdrop of civil unrest. It consistently feels like a comedy, yet never feels like it’s overly trivializing to its setting. It also manages to accomplish a hell of a lot of story in a relatively short time. Each season is only 6 episodes, each episode a half-hour long, and yet the show is able to develop quite an ensemble of different characters and some quality long-term arcs. It should be fun to go back and revisit the pilot with all this in mind.
Why I liked it: I don’t think it struck me how quickly Derry Girls develops its initial squad of characters. Erin, Claire, Orla, Michelle, and James each bring a unique personality to the group, and we’re able to grasp those different personalities within a minute or two of meeting each character. We’re also able to see how this cast of characters lets the writers play around with a lot of different types of humor. From James having to pee in a corner because there’s no boys’ bathroom at this school to Orla’s deadpan of saying ridiculous nonsense.
There’s so much contrast between these five that they’re constantly bickering, and we can see how they’ll clash for many episodes to come. But whether it’s the writing or the amazing performances/chemistry between these actors, I’m never asking “but why are they friends though?” They’re friends who each view the world differently, but their petty bickering feels like the petty bickering I do with my close friends rather than any thing that will seriously threaten the friendship.
The pilot also finds a fun twist on the cliché expository voiceover. We learn that Erin is 16, lives in either Derry or Londonderry depending on your political persuasion, and right as I was about to get mad at the lazy writing, we learn that it isn’t Erin speaking, but actually her cousin Orla reading from Erin’s diary. It was a clever way of ACTUALLY using the device for quick exposition while also poking fun at other shows that use it. Orla reading from Erin’s diary continues to be running gag throughout the episode.
Derry Girls also is incredibly dependent on the time and location in which it takes place, but they also find creative ways to show-not-tell this. Yes, we get voiceover about how people refer to Derry or Londonderry depending on their political persuasion, but we also see someone spray painting over the “London” part on the town side. We get casual jokes about the protestants, and numerous jokes making fun of the English (James in particular, but usually to make a broader point about the English). We also get jokes about Macaulay Culkin and Murder, She Wrote to plant us in the early ’90s. Then we also find out a bridge has been blown up, in case anyone was unsure about the implications of setting this show in early ’90s Northern Ireland. There’s so many quick pieces of dialog that put where we’re supposed to be, but never in an on-the-nose way.
The show also does a good job of balancing conflict that stems from its unique backdrop with relatively ordinary high school hijinks that virtually anyone can relate to. Yes, there’s a bomb that blows out a bridge. There’s soldiers that come onto the school bus to make sure no one’s hiding a bomb. There’s also the fact that James, Michelle’s English cousin, has to attend a previously all-girl school because his safety would’ve been at risk at the all-boy school simply because anti-English sentiment is that high.
But we also get Erin bickering with her cousin who keeps reading her diary. We get Erin fighting with her mother over the school dress code. We get the prissy goody-two-shoes brown noser that none of our core squad likes. We get a teacher who’s over everybody’s bullshit, who’s made more hilarious because she’s a nun. These elements of familiarity make Derry Girls feel universally relatable while we’re simultaneously entering a world that most Americans never got to experience firsthand.
What I didn’t like: This isn’t even a true DISLIKE, but I will say that this dialog is so high pace that it’s easy to miss jokes or crucial plot points if you zone out for five seconds.