Military vehicles drive by vandalizing teenagers, tired adults and a sign reading: “You are now entering Free Derry.” The Cranberries’ “Dreams” plays as a young female narrator introduces herself as Erin Quinn, 16 years old and from Derry, Northern Ireland. But as the song fades out, the narration continues and viewers enter a bedroom: Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) is asleep. Her cousin, Orla (Louisa Harland), is sitting beside her bed, reading out loud from a notebook. Erin sits up and asks her, “Is that my diary?” The song “Dreams” resumes, and “Derry Girls” is on its way to greatness.
From its beginning, “Derry Girls” has known exactly what it is and made sure its audience does, too. Created and written by Lisa McGee, the sitcom aired originally on Channel 4 and then headed to Netflix after its two seasons, with a third one in the works. “Derry Girls” follows Erin, Orla, their friends Clare (Nicola Coughlan), Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and Michelle’s English cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) as they navigate teenage life at a Catholic girls’ secondary school at the end of the Troubles in 1990s Derry. The group’s storylines deeply contrast with those of their parents, who spend more of their screen time discussing the British forces occupying Derry in hopes of keeping Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. While Orla and Erin’s family gather around their television to watch the news, the teens are busy challenging the school dress code, attempting to make money for a school trip to Paris and sneaking away to a concert in Belfast the day a polar bear escapes the zoo.
The show itself is impeccably done; it’s hilarious, brash and full of situations that feel like they could only happen to the girls. Not a lot of shows feature a main character trying to sneak a suitcase full of vodka on a bus, with the defense of “There’s mixers, as well, I’m not a savage.” She is forced to say it’s not hers when their headmistress asks, resulting in a bomb squad being called in. And of course, “Ode to My Family” by The Cranberries plays while a bomb squad robot approaches the bag.
But what gives “Derry Girls” a boost above other comedies is its soundtrack, which not only places it in a specific historical context, but lends itself to creating the perfect moment, no matter what emotion it has. The Cranberries’ “Dreams” is only the beginning. In the first episode alone, the girls’ first day of school —and detention — is accompanied by several ’90s classics, including Cypress Hill’s “Insane In the Brain,” House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” Genesis’ “I Can’t Dance” and Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.” Each track in the pilot helps develop the show’s energy, which is quite chaotic at times but always entertaining.
“Derry Girls” is at its strongest in the ridiculous moments with an upbeat song in the background. Season 1’s “Episode 2” solidifies the show’s quality and wipes away any doubt that the pilot could have been a fluke. Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” punctuates Erin’s father’s frustration about ordering food, and “Little Green Bag” by George Baker Selection accompanies the girls’ slow-motion walk down the stairs as they head out to do odd jobs to pay for their Paris trip. Of course, the song is cut off when their latest scheme — Michelle stole the job posting board from the local chip shop so no one else could get the money — is found out.
So, to avoid their families from being banned and therefore forced to cook dinner on a Friday night, the girls must clean the shop. A montage, set to Supergrass’ “Alright,” follows them as they scrub grease and James attempts to clean a window with mayonnaise, until Erin decides they’ve actually made the place worse and notices Michelle has gone missing. And of course, she’s having a dance party in the shop owner’s apartment, complete with flaming shots that she drops on the carpet as “Shipping Up to Boston” plays. Throughout each episode — which normally includes around 10 songs — “Derry Girls” uses songs that are not only memorable and just plain good, but also perfectly reflect their accompanying moments.
While it can be easy at times to get lost in the humor and general insanity of “Derry Girls,” the show never fails to stay firmly rooted in Derry. Most times, the conflict lends to the chaos of a situation like a stowaway on a car trip, or United States President Bill Clinton visiting their city. But the show doesn’t romanticize the Troubles. Instead, its juxtaposition with the girls’ adventures gives a wide space for the range of emotions captured. While Erin, Clare, Michelle and James join Orla’s step aerobics routine during the school talent show, Erin and Orla’s family watch the news come in from the aftermath of a deadly explosion. Alternating between the girls’ joyful dancing and the family’s response to the atrocity, “Derry Girls” uses The Cranberries’ “Dreams” again. “Oh, my life is changing every day, in every possible way” feels bigger than just a song as the teenagers continue to grow up and their country remains in a constant state of turmoil.
McGee embraces the hardships of the time to balance the show when it risks running wild and prevent it from being another coming-of-age show whose biggest conflicts are spats between friends and trying to flush weed scones down the toilet at a wake. Obviously, those things still happen in “Derry Girls” and they’re amazingly done, but the show always remains grounded in its premise and the context of the Troubles. It’s this one detail that gives the show a million little things — depth, sadness, humor, community and jokes about incendiary devices, among others. “Derry Girls” is funny, yes, but it has more heart than a lot of other teen sitcoms and that’s what has — and hopefully will continue to — set it apart from the rest.
As the show enters its third season soon, it seems reasonable to expect a lot more shenanigans and a lot of great music. Its second season showed no loss of momentum or lack of ideas for the soundtrack, proving that there’s still plenty of fire in the girls and plenty of trouble to get into. Here’s to a new season full of memorable moments and perfectly fitting tunes to accompany them. And to “Dreams” by the Cranberries, of course.