There is a universality in the teenage experience that supersedes time and place. No matter where or when you grow up, the highs and lows, the awkwardness, the emotions, the inevitable embarrassments will always be the same.
The U.K. sitcom “Derry Girls,” which debuted on Netflix in December, chooses to tell that story against the unlikely backdrop of early 1990s Northern Ireland in the midst of the Troubles — a violent period of ethno-nationalist conflict between the country’s Catholic and Protestant populations.
The Troubles cast a long shadow on the show. Through the young characters’ eyes, we see the daily disruptions of checkpoints, armed soldiers religious intolerance and even deadly bombings. That violence manifests as background noise on the show, an inconvenient fact of life they have learned to live with. While it’s never diminished, the show acknowledges that, as high schoolers, the characters have more pressing matters to contend with, like school, sex and general teenage drama.
The riotously funny series seems to have sprung fully formed from creator and writer Lisa McGee, who grew up in the Northern Irish town of Derry, which serves as the setting. In the early 1990s, Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) and her gang of awkward friends navigate an endless parade of misadventures of their own making.
What could otherwise be a middling teenage girl-driven sitcom is elevated by McGee’s sharp writing. The dialogue is fast-paced and whip-smart, with fleshed out characters who all bring something unique to the table.
At the center, is Erin, the desperate-to-be-popular protagonist whose efforts to climb the social ladder are constantly undermined by her own hare-brained, self-serving schemes. She’s joined by her cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), the resident weirdo with boundary issues and a passion for step aerobics. There’s Clare (Nicola Coughlan), the good-natured voice of reason, who, despite her better judgment, gets finds herself in trouble with the rest of them. Rounding out the gang is wannabe bad-girl Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and her cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn), who, being raised in England, now attends the all-girls school for his own safety.
A number of adults populate the show in supporting roles. Erin’s family, which, in addition to her goofball parents, includes her crusty grandfather and flighty aunt, is especially entertaining. However, it’s Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) who provides an entertaining foil as the Catholic school principal who’s more of a put-upon administrator than a devout woman of faith. Her contemptuous emceeing of the student talent show in “Episode Six” is a series highlight.
As a recovering Catholic who survived a dozen years of Catholic school, I can attest that the religious elements are well-observed and in good fun. “Episode Three,” in which, for various reasons, both the kids and adults fake a miracle, is a great bit of farce involving weeping statues and resurrected pets.
Jokes aside, McGee does a good job making the friendships on the show feel authentic. As the teens experience life, their relationships strain and grow, but never break. There is, of course, conflict and drama born from petty behavior and selfish motivations, but through it all they cling to one another as they weather the turbulent, uncertain seas of both adolescence and war.