At the beginning of the final episode of Derry Girls, the British Channel 4 TV series that ran for three seasons and that was also carried by Netflix in the U.S., the character Orla McCool, one of the titular protagonists, leaves a government office after having received her first-ever electoral identification card. It is the week of her 18th birthday and just days before Northern Ireland’s referendum on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Exiting the building, she pulls on her headphones, cutting off the televised voice of the rabidly anti-Catholic Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley as he encourages citizens to vote “no” on the upcoming peace deal.
Music begins to play, and Orla, in school uniform and the type of track jacket that any ’90s teen would have found familiar, begins to dance down the street, presumably on her way to class at Our Lady Immaculate College, the Catholic girls high school where so much of the show takes place. Along the way she takes viewers on a joyful dancing tour of dreary Derry, complete with a sequence in which she’s joined by a troupe of little girls dressed in traditional Irish step-dancer garb. As the scene winds down, Orla is forced to remove the headphones—cutting the music—and stop to address a British soldier at a checkpoint. Her matter-of-fact statement to the soldier in this moment provides a summary of the main characters’ chief aspiration—and the viewers’ hope for them—in this coming-of-age series set in the uniquely complicated Northern Ireland of the 1990s: “I need to get past.”
Orla does indeed get past, and so do the other Derry girls—a group of high school friends—after wrestling with how to vote on the Good Friday deal, the approval of which involved freeing imprisoned terrorists and murderers from both sides of the British-Irish conflict that had beset Northern Ireland for decades. It is a poignant episode, although perhaps not more so than one from an earlier season that cut back and forth between the girls gleefully dancing during a school talent show and their parents at home watching the unfolding news of a deadly bombing—a scene that used real-life news footage—that had taken place elsewhere in Northern Ireland at the same time. That moment left the viewer with very much the opposite sentiment than was imparted by the show’s second-season finale, which saw the girls walk happily off through the streets as Bill Clinton’s 1995 speech in their hometown—which they had set out to witness—plays in the background. (Show creator Lisa McGee, on whose youth the show is based, actually did write a letter to a teenage Chelsea Clinton ahead of that visit—an act replicated in the show and neatly followed up in the closing of the series.)
While these historically based moments stand out, they are fairly rare, as Derry Girls is far from a political show. The conflict is indeed always there in the background, but this is an old-fashioned comedy: character-driven and often purposely absurd, full of pratfalls and physical humor (the main protagonist’s elastic face is well and routinely employed for laughs). Each of the girls described by the show’s title plays faithfully to archetype, with the earnest-if-naive protagonist (Erin), the basket case (Clare), the wild child (Michelle), and the spacey one (Orla), joined by Michelle’s cousin James, an English transplant that is sent to the girls’ school for his own safety (owing to his Englishness, it was feared he would not fare well at the boys’ school). James is a utility player for the show, serving alternately as a love interest, token male presence, and target for the girls’ one-liners. (In response to James’ gripe when studying Irish history that he couldn’t “tell my rebellions from my risings,” Michelle shoots back: “And whose fault is that? If your lot had stopped invading us for five minutes, there’d be a lot less to wade through.”)
The ensemble is nicely rounded out by Erin’s loving and comically functioning family, as well as the show’s standout character, Our Lady Immaculate headmistress Sister Michael, whose signature eyerolls and quips provide some of the show’s funniest material. After one cringe-inducing skit about the Troubles is performed by a recurring character—an always-eager-to-impress-the-adults classmate of the main girls—the nun deadpans, “The conflict here has led to so many terrible atrocities … and now we must add your play to that list.”
Despite the depressing atmosphere of the conflict and the grayness of Northern Ireland in general, there’s an overt silliness to the show’s proceedings. Indeed, the comedic dynamics, charming and not often trying to be original, allow the series to dip into the bitterly divided politics of its setting not just for poignant moments but also for humor: A wrong turn that puts the whole (Catholic) crew into the midst of an Orange Order parade makes for a hilarious scene, and the discovery of an I.R.A. operative that hid himself in the family’s car trunk in order to escape across the border sets up a scene in which the teenage Michelle aggressively and ham-fistedly flirts with “the wee RA man,” as he is labeled. (Michelle makes a habit of such flirtation, doing the same with, among others, a priest and a constabulary commander.)
It is true, then, that Derry Girls works because of both the charming, throwback nature of its simple humor and the juxtaposition of that type of humor with a sad and violent history that is presented as starkly real but never the primary interest of the characters or the driver of their life stories. The Derry girls just need to get past, and they can because of the other dynamics that the show weaves through their lives so well: loving working-class families, a strong Catholic community, and loyal and enduring friendships. The girls of the show are vibrant and gleefully innocent, and look forward to a future they see can be bright despite their community’s bleak past, thanks indeed to a loving present made possible by those very dynamics. Perhaps there is a lesson here on the proper place of even contentious politics in life—not just for how it is depicted on television but for how to live despite it.