The anti-nostalgic power of Derry Girls
The Netflix series is a refreshing counter to coming-of-age clichés
Coming-of-age TV shows have a way of retroactively idealizing the past, airbrushing the awkward, difficult years of adolescence under waves of gauzy nostalgia. Take The Wonder Years, set in the late sixties and early seventies: Fred Savage's "wonder years in the suburbs" were, as the voiceover narration famously declared, "a golden age for kids," as everything the country went through between 1968 and 1973 was washed away in innocently clichéd memories of first kisses and baseball games and family BBQs in Anytown, USA.
The first scene of the first episode of Lisa McGee's Derry Girls serves as a dead-on parody of those famous The Wonder Years voice-overs: over sweeping video of green countryside, graffiti, and patrolling British soldiers, we hear the voice of what we take to be the show's protagonist, 16-year old Erin Quinn, grandly narrating "her complicated relationship to her hometown, a troubled little corner in the northwest of Ireland." With the Cranberries "Dreams" in the background — and panning past a bedroom copy of The Catcher in the Rye — her weary, hopeful, yet wise-beyond-her-age words would seem to set the stage for a nostalgic, romanticized immersion into a story about coming of age amongst the bombs and guns … until an instant later, when Erin wakes up, angrily shouting, and we realize that it's been her cousin, Orla, reading her diary out loud to her. The first of the show's many open-throated screaming matches ensues, as what seemed like it was going to be drama devolves into farce.
Though she aspires to be a writer, Erin's repeated attempts (and failures) to romanticize her life set the pattern: Derry Girls isn't just unsentimental, it's actively anti-nostalgic. It might be loosely adapted from McGee's own teenage upbringing in Northern Ireland, in the famously war-torn 1990's, but McGee uses the period-appropriate music and clothes to remind us how ugly the nineties could be — how garish, how loud, and how un-self-consciously silly — while the cramped and excessively intimate living arrangements make one long for escape. This is not to deny that the show knows what to do with a well-placed Cranberries or Enya track (and if you can come away from this show not genuflecting to Dolores O'Riordan and Eithne Pádraigín Ní Bhraonáinv, I don't know what to do with you). But its moments of raw, vulnerable feeling are few and far between, made all the more poignant by the otherwise uninterrupted slapstick farce of teenagers in a ridiculous age.
Just on its own, adolescence is a ridiculous, impossible in-between age: just old enough to fail by adult standards, they're young enough to be treated like children. And so, as the titular quartet of girls (and their unhappy English cousin, James) rage against the impossible unfairness of their lives — the concerts they can't go to, money they don't have, boys they can't get, and school they can't escape — they're also hilariously immature, selfish and vain, and every project they embark on ends in inevitable disaster. If the actresses are all in their twenties and thirties, what makes them seem like real teenagers is how poorly their clothes fit their bodies and how magnificently off their hair and makeup can be (as well as how wonderfully grotesque their faces become). Adolescence — real adolescence — is gangly, awkward, and painfully embarrassing; one doesn't so much "come of age" as suffer from it until you escape. This is why coming-of-age shows airbrush adolescence, and why Derry Girls refuses to do so: nothing in how McGee portrays the hellish in-between of youth would make you want to go back to it.
But adolescence isn't the only absurd and impossible thing about the lives of the Derry Girls; so is the age they live in, the last few years of the brutal, simmering, apparently endless Northern Irish conflict. For all the gravity and tragedy of much-romanticized "Troubles" in Northern Ireland — a civil war between the British part of Ireland and the Irish part of Britain, as one might accurately describe its absurdity — Derry Girls is as unsentimental about the conflict as it is about adolescence itself. The violence mostly rages on TV, while ordinary people's ordinary lives go on: a bomb on a bridge just means a missed beauty appointment and a school bus that must go the long way around. This, too, sets the pattern: for all the grand pretensions of republicans and loyalists, the show portrays the conflict — by then well into its third decade — as essentially external to the real trials and tribulations of living.
Who would want to go back to the nineties? In the context of Brexit — as the show's actresses and creator have been quick to observe — the issue has a new salience. If and when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, it will bring Northern Ireland along with it, and the open borders within Ireland will likely close, effectively shredding the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace in 1998. No one wants that to happen, of course. But no one knows exactly how to avoid it, either. The European Union brought Irish Catholics and Protestants together more effectively than Irish nationalism ever did; what happens when it tears them apart? But there's no getting around it: if there is to be a hard border between the United Kingdom and Europe, then there will have to be a newly-hardened border between the Republic of Ireland — still firmly part of Europe — and Northern Ireland. And nothing expresses the absurdity of the present better than how few in the UK seemed to have planned for what "Leaving" would mean for Ireland when they voted for it.
If it does nothing else, the second season of Derry Girls, which dropped on Netflix last week, reminds viewers that no one wants to go back to the militarized borders, checkpoints, and simmering violence of the nineties. In the finale, Bill Clinton's visit to Derry in 1995 — an important step in the peace process — gives the season a natural endpoint, and reminds us of one of the very few things about the nineties to be nostalgic for: the sense that history was moving forward, getting better, not worse. (Can you imagine?) But the show's real drama is never politics or nationalist conflict; the question posed by the finale — in which cousin James is given a chance to finally escape Derry — is a much more basic one. What makes community?
The comedy of the first season might have been a bit sharper; there's no episode in the second season that can match the virtuosity of the pilot, and if you have practically memorized the first series — as I have — you'll notice that the second covers many of the same beats. But there's also a depth to the set-pieces that the first season didn't always have, an undercurrent of meaning; if the first season punctured the adolescent drama of teenage crushes and communal strife — and Erin's pretensions as a writer — the second actually has something to say about how community is formed through difference.
When the girls go on a "friends across the barricades" retreat that matches them with male and Protestant counterparts, for example, the whole thing collapses into the usual bickering, farcical disaster; the only thing the two groups can agree on — other than how much they hate their parents — is a massive list they compile about what makes Protestants and Catholics different (Protestants are richer, it turns out; Catholics love statues). And yet if ethno-nationalist conflicts are fueled by a desire for similarity — the same longing as with Brexit, for purified communities united by religion, ethnicity, or race — the kids filling up a blackboard with a list of their differences is also two communities finding in the project something they can work on, together. Isn't that, also, what community looks like?
One probably shouldn't read too much into a comic farce like Derry Girls; sometimes a plate of hash-filled scones is just a plate of hash-filled scones, not a metaphor for global politics. But the show's warmth and humanity come from its appreciation for how conflict — even cruelty — can feel a lot like family. Along with the usual familial squabbling, the season includes a self-conscious rewriting of Carrie in which everyone gets splashed with pigs' blood at prom, and a rampaging polar bear that terrorizes Catholics and Protestants alike. In the show's most moving sequence, James — the much-reviled and abused outsider member of the group — is not only accepted as a "Derry Girl," but his cousin Michelle insists that he always has been one. It didn't matter that he was English and a boy (or as she has often more concisely put it, "a dick"): being a Derry Girl turns out to be a state of mind. Family and community aren't just the idealized clichés of a Wonder Years montage; they're also the words "fuck off, then," uttered by someone asking you to stay. Once you accept that — once you get in that Derry Girls frame of mind — you can find yourself watching the whole show differently: the insults, threats, and betrayals are all, in another accent, ways of speaking love.