The final series of Derry Girls (Channel 4) has been a triumph. Rather than resting on its laurels, it pushed itself to new heights. From its celebrity cameos – classy, sparing, and in the last ever episode, it’s fair to say surprising – to its playful decision to mix up genres, each week has been delightful. I loved the episode set almost entirely on a train, the “haunted” house trip, and the school reunion flashback to Sarah and Mary’s youth, movingly dedicated to “all the mammies”, which was so good that fans have been calling for a spinoff series. It is a rare comedy that bows out on a high like this, but Derry Girls has been bold in its victory lap.
It has earned its right, then, to say a protracted farewell with not one but two episodes. The first is a classic caper, fittingly doing what the show does best by getting the gang of five into a scrape then letting them make it far worse for themselves. Fatboy Slim, or Slimboy Fat, depending on who you ask, is playing in Derry on Halloween, and the girls (and I do include the wee English fella in this, as is only right and fair) will simply die if they don’t get tickets. The trouble is that a local hardman stands in the way of them and their Rockafeller Skanks.
It’s the ultimate in 90s nostalgia, from its soundtrack to the Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet idolization to queuing at a record shop to pick up tickets made out of paper. James has to fight for the girls’ honor, which goes as well as you’d think, while Michelle gets stuck in as only she knows how: by her lying through her teeth. Even Clare is finally free to be her wee lesbian self. (To its credit, Derry Girls has tried to make a virtue out of Nicola Coughlan’s clear lack of availability for filming, owing to a Bridgerton clash; almost every episode has involved a guessing game as to how Clare might not make it to whatever mess they ‘ve got themselves caught up in.)
As well as brilliant buffoonery, Derry Girls have found a new-ish emotional maturity, and I admit to getting choked up on more than one occasion. It pulls at the heartstrings but avoids being too cheesy, so when it goes for the big dramatic moments, it almost always lands them. Episode six builds to one of those moments, but it could not have been the way they planned to end it. For a comedy so good at silliness – just watch what Orla is doing at any given moment, even when she’s not speaking – it would have been too sad to leave it like that.
Thankfully, the hour-long final episode, set one year later in 1998, wraps it all up with a perfect proportion of light and shade. It is Orla and Erin’s joint 18th birthday party, and the Good Friday agreement referendum is taking place. There are huge lessons to be learned about compromise, and difficult decisions in all areas of life. Orla, for example, wants a monkey-themed party, while Erin wants it to be literary greats. “Find a middle ground, girls,” says Aunt Sarah. “Like, literary monkeys.”
The middle ground proves elusive, on many levels. The budget for Erin and Orla’s party does not quite match their expectations, and the history-making referendum is stealing their thunder. This does not downplay the magnitude of the shifting political landscape (and what better time to be reminded of it) but plays it out as it affects ordinary people’s lives, which is smart and touching. Michelle and Erin row about which way they are going to vote, and it pitches into drama again, refusing to shy away from serious topics. But it always comes back to the comedy. You’d think it might be difficult to make a debate about paramilitary prisoners into a joke, but the pieces just fit together. And if there is a funnier scene on TV this year than Jenny’s commemorative Choose Hope play, put on for the school assembly to Sister Michael’s utter despair, I would be very surprised.
It took a while for Derry Girls to establish itself as that rare thing, a modern comedy classic, but now it feels like it has always been there. There’s a strong sense that though it will be missed, it hasn’t outstayed its welcome. Instead, it has been absolutely cracker.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.