Set in Derry, Northern Ireland during a period of political unrest and low-level warfare, the “Derry Girls” pilot opens with a dreamy shot of the countryside as heavily armed men peer out of a military vehicle and the Cranberries ‘Dreams’ plays in the background. This opening juxtaposition is the first of many evocative scenes to come, as ‘Derry Girls’ takes you on a roller coaster of emotion, allowing for a more lighthearted portrayal of a somber time period during which many lost their lives, and many more came of age.
The show follows the lives of five friends navigating their teenage years in the tumultuous time period known as the Troubles, referring to an ethno-nationalist conflict that began in the late 1960’s and ended with the Good Friday Agreements of 1998. During this time, paramilitary groups on both sides mobilized, engaging in guerilla warfare, leading to the deaths of more than 3,500 people. Many of those who were killed were civilians. The conflict was marked by periods of tit-for-tat violence, including many bombings. The psychological impact of this constant threat is felt throughout the show.
The five main characters, Clare, Erin, Orla, Michelle and “The wee English fella” James, navigate a multitude of stereotypical scenarios, indicative of the highschool years, such as crushes, exam stress, religious belief, sexuality and friendship. More than anything, “Derry Girls” highlights the need to have a good set of true friends— the type that will be there for you no matter what.
Though there are only six episodes in the entire season, each is packed with action. In episode three, the friends attempt to pray their way towards good grades on a big exam. While in church they witness a divine miracle, but everything is not as it may seem. This leads to endless laughs. In another episode, Erin has a crush on a friend at school, and tries to casually interact. He asks her if she smokes, and she replies no. Her inner monologue takes over and she exclaims, “why the hell do I not smoke!?” Another time, their school bus is stopped at a checkpoint and armed guards come onboard and Michelle jokingly asks “But do you think if I told him I had an incendiary device down my knickers, he’d have a look?”
Each episode is set against a backdrop of social and political turmoil, yet watching the show one would barely notice the low level of war taking place, as we watch the friends continue about their daily lives as if everything is normal. This sense of normality is reflected in the casual mentioning of bomb scares, bridges being shut down and armed police, all of which simply represent an inconvenience in life. Heavy topics such as Northern Ireland’s deeply restrictive abortion laws are referenced when one character talks about a family member who had to travel to England for an abortion.
The most moving contrast between vitality and the horrors of conflict comes in the final episode, as the audience watches two opposing moments unfold. As the screen pans back and forth, you watch the friends smiling with joy as they dance on stage at a talent show. the camera then pans to shows the adults at home standing around the TV as news of yet another bombing is reported. This moment captivates the audience, tugging at their heartstrings, and as the screen fades to black they are left with a better sense of the complexities of life growing up in Northern Ireland.
Channel 4 renewed the series after just one episode, and Netflix streams it internationally. Though a second season is in the works, Netflix has not said if they will pick it up.