'Derry Girls' Made a New Kind of Crisis Story
The series' final season cements what always made it so refreshing.
Imagine an inspirational opening montage for a show set during a crisis.
Shots of somber schoolchildren intercut with violence. Cars burning. Soldiers doing soldiery things. Dramatic but understated music in the background.
“They told us we were young, yet we understood the enormity of it. We understood what was at stake,” the narrator might say. “Our fear was replaced with something altogether more terrifying: Hope.”
That’s how the third season of Derry Girls begins, and indeed, it would be fitting in any number of films and series depicting a crisis. That is, if it wasn’t interrupted almost immediately.
Every season of Derry Girls — the criminally underrated comedy depicting a group of Catholic teenagers living in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” in the 90s — starts with a similar montage, and each time, it is interrupted hilariously by some common aspect of everyday life, revealing the montage to be a parody of the inspirational-montage trope that has become so associated with the genre.
In many ways, that joke highlights one of Derry Girls’ unique strengths. The series, whose third and final season dropped on Netflix in the US earlier this month, both understands how crises have been depicted on screen and how that differs from the real experience.
Too often, stories about people living through a sustained crisis like The Troubles — the violent conflict that seemed to define Northern Ireland for most of the second half of the 20th-century — fall into the trap of revolving solely around that crisis. The characters spend every moment thinking and talking about it. Every action and motivation comes back to it. The crisis defines the story.
These “crisis stories” are usually trying to make some point about their political moment, so it makes perfect sense to let the crisis define the story. The issue, though, is that by defining the characters by the time that they exist in, crisis stories tend to ignore the power of the universal human experiences that these narratives can convey.
Derry Girls, on the other hand, doesn’t let the crisis in which it takes place define it. The show is instead anchored by a coming-of-age narrative, and utilizes The Troubles mostly as background or complication. The plot is actually more inline with a sitcom, letting everyday hijinks, bad decisions, and spins on classic tropes lead the characters into hilarious situations — one episode is a classic who-am-I-going-to-the-dance-with-at-the-prom conundrum, another is a funeral-gone-wrong.
To be sure, it’s not that The Troubles aren’t present in Derry Girls. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s rather that the crisis and violence that surrounds the main characters has become so normal that it is somehow always present without ever being the center of attention. In most conversations, discussions of the IRA, the border, and the religious divide weave in and out of conversations about school, dating, chores, and the weather.
In fact, if Derry Girls has anything to say about The Troubles, it is a lesson in how sustained crises can warp entire worldviews, especially for people who have never known anything else.
That may be why it took so long for The Troubles to be depicted like this. Lisa McGee — the show’s creator and writer, who based much of the show on her own experiences — grew up in Northern Ireland in the 90s and had a very different experience from how The Troubles were depicted at the time.
“Now, looking back, you really lose your breath thinking about how dangerous things were, but we weren’t really scared. Not really. But we should have been,” McGee said in a recent interview with the New York Times.
To her, crisis wasn’t crisis at all. Crisis was normal.
In many ways, Derry Girls’ understanding of life surrounded by crisis makes it the perfect show for our times. Obviously most people aren’t living in a situation as explicitly violent or dire as The Troubles, but the current social and political landscape (not to mention the pandemic) make it seem like there is a new crisis everyday. Eventually, “crisis” is thrown around often enough that it begins to feel like “crisis” isn’t crisis at all. Crisis is normal.
It might be nice in these trying times, then, for a show like Derry Girls to offer some sort of assurance that better things will come. Surprisingly, though, what separates the series from other coming-of-age stories is that Derry Girls is not relentlessly optimistic. For many of the young characters, there is a healthy amount of cynicism that Northern Ireland’s situation can meaningfully change.
Of course, we know looking back that things do get better, but it is refreshing to see characters who have grown up only knowing The Troubles genuinely struggle to imagine a better world. It feels honest.
Still, there is a general message of hope here, but like the show’s context, hope for Ireland is not the central theme. Rather than for the crisis itself, Derry Girls’ hope is for the people who are living through it.
Increasingly, the hope for today’s sustained crises feels much the same.
That’s all for this edition of Cansler Culture.
And yes, the next one will be about Midnights. I have thoughts and they will be written down.
For now stream “Oh, Caroline” by The 1975. It’s a vibe.
ok I was saving this one til i finished DG (yesterday) and i literally SOBBED at the finale