Northern Ireland during the Troubles seems an unlikely setting for a comedy, but Derry Girls has emerged as one of Netflix’s most enjoyable releases.
Derry Girls is a Northern Irish comedy series. It premiered in the UK early last year, but has only recently been released on Netflix for an international audience. In its homeland, the show was an unprecedented success, smashing Northern Irish television viewing records. It got a 64.2% share of the viewing audience—a feat of televisual hegemony it would be hard to overstate. By comparison, the most watched AFL Grand Final in modern history only managed to snag 24.5% of Australian viewers. How is it that a lighthearted coming of age sitcom has attracted the sort of viewership usually reserved for a moon landing, or a royal wedding, or coverage of a terrorist attack?
Much of Derry Girls, as it happens, takes place against the backdrop of terrorism. Set in the town of Derry during the Troubles in the 90s, the teenage protagonists grapple with the ubiquitous problems of puberty (sex, homework, bullying) in addition to their highly specific woes (a bomb under a bridge, smuggling an IRA member across the border, wretched Orangemen). Despite the grim setting, there’s scarcely a dark moment to be found. Derry Girls is, in the opinion of this reviewer, the most enjoyable television program that Netflix has ever distributed.
One is tempted to say that the actors are ‘outstanding’, but one cannot; every last one of them is terrific, without a single mediocre performance from which the others might stand-out. Siobhan McSweeney, as Sister Mary, speaks scarcely a single line which does not elicit laughter. The same can be said for Ian McElhinney, who you might remember from Game of Thrones, “until he stopped living”, and Saoirse-Monica Jackson who plays the lead, and so on, to the extent that one may as well just single out Carla Stronge, the casting director, as some sort of genius.
Lisa McGee has written an infectious script, which demands the sort of recitations that schoolchildren used give to each other when talking about The Simpsons. Yesterday afternoon, this reviewer encountered a friend at a pub and discovered that she, too, had watched Derry Girls. Thereafter, both this reviewer and his interlocutor, without ceasing, for perhaps twenty minutes, spoke entirely in sentences beginning with the words ‘remember that bit when’.
When taking in the program, and the enormity of its achievement, it is, perhaps, worth remembering that the IRA only finished disarming in 2005, and that, with Brexit on the horizon, the Irish border question remains massively controversial. Sectarian division is quieter than it used to be, but it’s hardly over. On the eleventh of July each year, protestants burn the Irish flag on bonfires. Sinn Féin MPs still don’t take their seats in Westminster. And yet, Northern Ireland has united in watching a television comedy which—rather than glossing over the past—takes as its subject matter some of the bloodiest days in its history. Derry Girls is a remarkable comedy, the work of brilliant farceurs at every level of production, and is well deserving of your immediate attention.
Derry Girls (M) is streaming on Netflix