Comfort Viewing: 3 Reasons I Love ‘Derry Girls’

Comfort Viewing: 3 Reasons I Love ‘Derry Girls’
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When Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s heroine on “Fleabag” fell in love with the Hot Priest last year, a friend texted me: “Wait, have you ever met a hot priest? Is that really a thing?”

She asked me because I have the bona fides of a serious Roman Catholic upbringing: a mother who, upon moving into a summer house, blesses it with holy water stored in a Poland Spring bottle, labeled HOLY WATER on a Post-it so that no one mistakenly drinks it. To this friend, I texted back: “No priest is that pulsatingly hot. That’s not a thing.”

But you know what is a thing? A boyishly handsome priest who has such a beatific glow you can’t stop looking at his face and how exquisitely proportional it is. As young as he is, this priest loves to hear himself speak wise words and watch parishioners drink them in.

And the recent TV series that nailed this type? The sitcom “Derry Girls,” whose two six-episode seasons are now streaming on Netflix. All its characters, even minor ones like the priest, are finely, believably portrayed.

Set in 1990s Northern Ireland, “Derry Girls” follows the idealistic teenager Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) and her four vibrant, hilarious friends as they navigate their (mostly) all-girls Catholic high school. There’s the rebellious Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell); the rule-enforcer Clare (Nicola Coughlan); the spacey Orla (Louisa Harland); and the “wee English fella,” James (Dylan Llewellyn), sent to study with the girls because his family feared he would be beaten up at the Catholic boys school.

The group also contends with overbearing families, not to mention the Troubles — the decades-long conflict between Catholic republicans and Protestants who are loyal to Britain, which effectively ended in 1998.

The creator, Lisa McGee, used her own childhood in Derry as inspiration, and she deploys a light touch. Some TV series set in past eras can’t resist knowing jokes about obsolete technology or hideous fashions. But the details in “Derry Girls” are there to create an atmosphere, not to supply jokes. The twee hair clips Erin uses to pull back her blond locks? Dead-on 1995. The same goes for her mother’s Ugly Christmas Sweaters and the crucifix that adorns the family’s doorway.

Still, there are plenty of jokes, and the singsong Northern Irish accent lands them beautifully. Every subject, be it personal or political, is mined for irreverent comedy. A peace initiative with Protestant students is really a chance to snag a boy. At a great-aunt’s wake, the gang mistakenly serves pot scones (Michelle didn’t have a brownie recipe). And that priest? Of course, he believes the friends’ claim that they saw a statue of the Virgin Mary weep. And, of course, it turns out the tears were dog urine.

Back in April, I discovered the kicky delights of “Derry Girls” while at home in locked-down Brooklyn. Its sitcom structure, with its dependable rhythms and 24-minute length, was exactly what I needed after long days of working and home-schooling two kids. But its writing is too smart and too specific to be the television equivalent of macaroni and cheese. The show’s got sustenance, and here are three ways it delivers.

I always thought shows like “Gossip Girl” got adolescence all wrong. Sure, teenagers want to have sex and exact petty revenge, but characters like Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) did so with smooth confidence and so few snafus. Really, she was a highly self-actualized mini-adult.

On “Derry Girls,” the friends’ plans — to sneak out to a concert, ditch an exam, make money for a class trip to Paris — usually fail spectacularly. An episode’s last shot is often of Erin’s face screwed up in embarrassment. The group’s fecklessness is the show’s engine for comedy, but I think it also captures something real about adolescence: that teenagers are constantly trying on new identities, unsure of who they really are.

So when one of the visiting Ukrainian students declares that Northern Ireland’s whole sectarian-violence thing is “stupid,” Erin is offended. But it’s Clare, so obedient she never questioned the politics she inherited, who declares, “Oh my God, it is stupid.” And she goes on to don a Union Jack T-shirt to “take the power out of these symbols.” Meanwhile, Michelle, who sees life not in ideas but as experiences, eyes one of the male students to “lose the rest of my virginity.”

While the series focuses on the five friends, they are supported by a cast of adults who could, very convincingly, lead TV series of their own. There are Erin’s parents, the put-upon Gerry (Tommy Tiernan) and the watchful Mary (Tara Lynne O’Neill). Her nationalist grandfather, Joe (Ian McElhinney), and her vain, daffy aunt, Sarah (Kathy Kiera Clarke). They are not just B Plot filler. Even supporting characters come alive with complexity and contradictions.

Take, for example, Sister Michael (Siobhán McSweeney), the wry nun and head mistress of the all-girls school. Set before the clergy sex-abuse scandals of the 2000s, the series manages to sidestep this darker side of the Church. But Sister Michael does poke at the religion’s sanctimony (she eye-rolls her way through the priest’s monologuing). And her one-liners kill.

After a student talent show, she takes the stage and says: “You know, every year I sit backstage listening to the singers, and it really makes me realize just how talented the professionals who originally recorded these tracks were. Now, who’s on next?”

One week back in April, while coronavirus cases and deaths soared in New York City, my 6-year-old daughter kept waking up screaming from nightmares. Already I was worrying. What did she make of these masks I now fixed on her, the neighbors she suddenly stopped seeing, the many, many hours inside our apartment, the many, many sirens outside? And now these nightmares — so terrifying she wouldn’t speak of them the next day.

Finally, one morning she confessed she’d watched something not allowed, and this was why she had bad dreams. “Scooby-Doo,” she whispered in my ear. I laughed, and I should’ve known. Peril is constantly lurking in childhood, whether it’s a pandemic or an animated dog lost in a haunted house.

It’s a message “Derry Girls” often repeats: To a sensitive teenager like Erin, everything is monumental. A cease-fire is given equal weight to a boy standing her up for the prom. It’s an adult trick, anyway, to think you’ve controlled life enough to avoid things like fear and sadness. Kids know they’re always on the horizon, as are joy and excitement. And so they don’t lose their footing when, suddenly, they have to feel all of it.

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