“Derry Girls,” Netflix’s raucous comedy created by Lisa McGee, is about two simmering states of conflict: troubles in Northern Ireland and adolescence.
The series, which returns for its third and final season on Friday, is first and foremost a brutally funny coming-of-age story, following five working-class friends at an all-girls Catholic school in the 1990s. larger politics is ever present, even in the show’s title. In the pilot, Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) introduces herself, via a diary entry, as if she is 16 years old and lives in “Derry, or Londonderry, depending on her persuasion.”
“Londonderry” is the official name, preferred by Protestant unionists who support the remaining part of the United Kingdom of Northern Ireland; “Derry” is what Erin’s Catholic neighbors and friends know. In the intro, the camera pans over youths spray-painting over the “London-” on a road sign, as a military vehicle drives past and “Dreams” by The Cranberries plays on the soundtrack.
This is “Derry Girls,” done with ’90s pop and spray paint. It’s a bubblegum-punk document of growing up in a conflict zone, with a feisty, optimistic spirit.
The serious and awkward Erin and her friends: the ditzy Orla (Louisa Harland); Claire (Nicola Coughlan, “Bridgerton”); the sassy Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell); and Michelle’s meek English cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) know the times they live in. (In a running gag, each season opens with Erin’s dramatic, mock narration of her generation’s plight.) But her problems are teenage problems: money, social status, breaking the rules and avoiding Sister Michael (Siobhán McSweeney), her sardonic and no-nonsense director.
As a teenager in a strict school, McGee is an expert smuggler. In “Derry Girls” he has sewn sociopolitical commentary into the padding of wild comedy.
Nearly every episode is based on a gleefully executed, classic sitcom premise: a scam, a road trip, a crazy misunderstanding, which inevitably turns into an avalanche of bad decisions compounded by panic attacks, ending, for usually in a disciplinary action or perhaps a house fire. .
But the antics are grounded in a vivid sense of teenage reality and the spiky chemistry between the leads. McGee’s writing is wild and alive; dialogue bounces around like a pinball and uses profanity as punctuation. (Sorry I can’t quote most of the best lines.) In “Derry Girls”, teenage childhood is imagined as a kind of unstable chemical reaction; her characters, delightfully, have absolutely no chills.
That they also live in a place torn apart by sectarian violence is background noise, an intractable complication of everyday life. In the pilot, the commute to work on the first day of school is complicated by a bomb threat. In a later episode, the friends sneak off to Belfast for a concert by pop group Take That; Michelle carries a suitcase of vodka on the bus, then, after she denies ownership to avoid being arrested for underage drinking, the “unclaimed bag” causes an evacuation and is destroyed by the bomb squad.
Adolescence is itself a kind of bomb threat; It also has a clock that ticks. The characters of “Derry Girls” are on the cusp of change, as is where they live. Season 2 ends with US President Bill Clinton’s 1995 visit to Northern Ireland to encourage the peace process. As Season 3 begins, the girls grapple with what life would be like for them after graduation, while Derry contemplates what could happen after a peace deal.
This theme gives the seven-episode final season a greater sense of the stakes, even as the chaos continues. One character is revealed to have a family member imprisoned due to the rebellion; more than one character is touched by death in the family.
Above all, adulthood looms. In the season premiere, the girls stress over the results of a crucial school exam, and Claire’s breakdown captures her anxieties: “Passing those exams was our only chance. we are girls. They were poor. We are from Northern Ireland. We are Catholics, for God’s sake!” (Coughlan’s transformations into a fireball of molten panic are a joy to watch.)
The final season highlights the odds against the girls, with a notable episode recalling their parents as members of the class of ’77. The elders, who have been comic support buffoons for much of the series, were once kids filled with their own hormones and punk rebellion. (The episode features “Teenage Kicks” by Derry’s the Undertones, introduced as “our national anthem.”)
This is all based on the double-length finale, which takes place in 1998, when the girls turn 18 and Northern Ireland is about to vote in the Good Friday Referendum, a power-sharing deal between warring factions. . Perhaps our heroines are just one generational link in a long chain of Derry girls and women. But the ending suggests, optimistically but not cheesy, that things could be different, or at least that it’s essential to believe that they could be.
The relatively short duration of “Derry Girls,” like that of many fast-paced British comedies, allows it to condense adolescence into a conveniently packed space. So much happens in what, in retrospect, seems like so little time. The series may end, pristine and in tip-top shape, before the onset of the implausible aging or inevitable softening of characters that afflicts long-running sitcoms.
Don’t get me wrong: I could have gladly watched 200 episodes of “Derry Girls.” But its quick ending is in keeping with the unsentimental spirit of the show. Like the teenage kicks themselves, it couldn’t go on forever.