This review contains mild spoilers for the season two premiere of Derry Girls.
I lost count of the number of straight women friends who told me they could never be with me, or that they wished they were gay so they could be with me, when I came out. I never knew what to say — I didn’t have any romantic or sexual interest in any of them, but that misguided, condescending response was so much better and warmer than the friends who outright rejected me that I felt lucky to hear it. And so in the Derry Girls season one finale, Clare’s power response to Erin after she tells her she’s the wee lesbian whose diary they published anonymously in the school newspaper filled me with a glee I have hardly known watching gay women on TV. Erin makes a motion as if to push Clare back into the closet and says, “I’m sorry, but I’m just not into you like that.” Clare pulls such a face and scoffs, “I’m not into you like that either; look at the state of you!”
That’s Derry Girls: sharp and quick and hilarious and so surprising. I’ve watched all six episodes of series one on Netflix multiple times and guffawed at least once upon each rewatch. If you’re still unfamiliar with the show, I assume it’s because you enjoy actively robbing yourself of joy, and I’m here to stop you from that kind of self-sabotaging behavior. Derry Girls tells the story of four young women growing up in Northern Ireland in the ’90s, in the middle of the the conflict between Irish nationalists and British loyalists. There’s Erin, the group’s leader, an awkward, opportunistic aspiring writer with a crush on a guy in a local band; Clare, the overeager, overachieving, anxiety-riddled do-gooder whose do-goodism is often desperately naive; Orla, the aerobics-loving Luna Lovegood, who is also Erin’s cousin; and Michelle, a Pernod-drinking misanthropist with next-level swearing skills and a singular focus on losing her virginity. (Also, Michelle’s wee British lad of a cousin, James.)
They attend an all-girls Catholic school run by Sister Michael, one of my favorite TV characters of all time. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Daria Morgendorffer was an Irish Catholic nun and headmistresses, Sister Michael is your answer.
I’m pleased to report that series two, which landed this week on Channel 4, is just as irreverent, just as uproarious, just as unpredictable. Clare, for example, who agonizes over literally everything, hasn’t agonized at all about coming out to everyone else. The episode opens with Aunt Sarah asking Clare if Protestants make lesbians too, and Granda Joe proclaiming, “I heard that k.d. lang on the radio yesterday. Christ, she’s got some set of pipes on her. Your people are very talented.” (Actually, the episode opens with Enya and a voiceover because of course it does.) And that’s that. Derry Girls saves its othering storyline for the field trip where the all-girls Catholic school is to meet up with the all-boys Protestant school to build (metaphorical) bridges.
That mission does not go to plan. Father Peter returns from his sabbatical — “Do you mean when you shacked up with the slutty hairdresser but then she dumped you?” — and asks the kids to help him make a list of the things Protestants and Catholics have in in common, and a list of things they don’t. The second one is easy: Protestants are richer; Catholics buzz off statues and Protestants don’t; Protestants like to march and Catholics like to walk; Protestants are taller; Catholics have more freckles; Protestants hate Abba. They can’t think of a single thing they have in common. It’s a ridiculous skewering of the in-group/out-group mentality baked into kids that’s as prevalent and insidious today as it always has been. And Clare’s sexuality doesn’t have to be the focal point for the conversation!
The field trip reaches its inevitable conclusion with Clare dangling from a rock rappelling rope being handled by her (full) Protestant counterpart, screaming that he’s going to murder her. (He doesn’t.)
Underneath the quick wit and social commentary, Lisa McGee’s series is actually rooted in a real affection for Derry and for these teenage girls. “Look, I wanted to be an individual but my ma wouldn’t let me,” Erin tells Claire in the first episode of the series, when she shows up for school in her uniform blazer instead of her rebellious jean jacket like they’d planned. “Well I am not being individual on me own,” Clare hisses, ripping off her own jean jacket in a huff. And that’s the poignancy of this madcap show: A group of teenage girls surrounded by armored tanks and soldiers with machine guns, pipe bombs and exploding bridges, just trying to figure out who they are, as individuals, together.
You can watch Derry Girls series one on Netflix; season two is rumored to be landing in March. In the UK, you can watch series two right this second on Channel 4.