The top 50 TV shows of 2022: No 9 – Derry Girls

‘I’m so fucking sick of peace!” And so, another of Michelle’s banging lines launched the third and best series of Derry Girls. While a second ceasefire was called, the girls (and yes, James, that includes you) spent the summer of 1997 making a “really quite shite” documentary about growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland. Ah, well. Maybe it wasn’t too late to make “a couple of fake videos for You’ve Been Framed” instead. Anyway, on to more pressing matters: GCSE results! Cue Bizarre Inc screeching “Why waste your time? / You know you’re gonna be mine.” Let the final series of Lisa McGee’s masterpiece begin!

Derry Girls is so tonally perfect, its farce so exquisitely timed, the 90s nostalgia so flawlessly pitched, the essence of teenage girlhood so lovingly distilled, that the impulse to relay each scene line by line, in the merciful-Jesus-kill-me-now manner of Uncle Colm, is impossible to resist. My intro only covers the first 60 seconds of series three – that’s how high the gag rate is. One has to pay the kind of close attention previously reserved for Line of Duty interrogations to catch every joke. Laugh too hard at the chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (played by Liam Neeson!) telling the wains that there are in fact three Catholics in the force if you include the lovely Jewish fella down Ballymena station, and you’re in danger of missing the epiphany that Sister Michael’s full name is … Sister George Michael.

Between the lines of McGee’s genius script simmered centuries of colonialism and decades of war in Northern Ireland. Often, it was when the grownups were in front of the telly that the Troubles bubbled to the surface. Like Ma Mary watching Mo Mowlam’s arrival and saying “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if anyone’s going to sort that lot out, it’ll be a woman!” Or in the girls’ bullying of James because of his unforgivable Englishness. One of my favourite lines dropped in episode four when the gang ventured to Donegal to clean Sister Michael’s dead aunt’s house. Seeking directions from an Irish woman they couldn’t understand, James moaned: “Why can’t everyone just speak English?” “Well,” replied Michelle, “your country had a good stab at forcing the entire world to but we didn’t enjoy it that much James … Imperialist prick!” At which point your equal parts Indian and English correspondent was on her knees.

The trauma was also referred to obliquely if you knew where to look. Take the scene where Gerry and Granda Joe drove into the countryside to bury Fluffy, the neighbour’s pet bunny killed by Joe’s irascible cat. A pitch-black farce that gently redirected viewers to the silenced history of the disappeared: those abducted, murdered and buried by paramilitaries in the 1970s and early 1980s. That McGee was able to reference such grim history and make comedy out of it without descending into offence proved the integrity of her art. Derry Girls showed us that laughter can be a radical act, and a mode of survival. And war was never the joke. The humour, especially the laughs closest to the bone, came from the absurdity of having to muddle along with it.

Along the way there was so much life. Fatboy Slim came to Derry. There were two first kisses, a train trip to Barry’s Amusements in Portrush, and the girls dressed up as The Spice Girls and a quintet of Claire Danes from Romeo + Juliet (though everyone thought they were swans). In another flawless episode, we returned via school reunion flashback to the class of 1977 to see what Ma Mary and Aunt Sarah got up to back in the day. An episode, set during the most violent decade of the Troubles, which closed with the greatest dedication known to British sitcom-kind: “For all the mammies.”

In the end, the conflict moved seamlessly from backdrop to central plot. The tremendous hour-long finale saw Erin and Orla turn 18 and one and all head to the ballot box to vote in the Good Friday agreement referendum. The last scenes were so restrained and tender I cried again, this time without laughing. But then, this being Derry Girls, there was more. A final-final scene in which Chelsea Clinton (who saw that cameo coming?!) received a letter sent by the girls of Our Lady Immaculate College two decades (and one series) earlier. Absolutely. Cracker. The fact is, I love Derry Girls like I loved what I loved when I was a teenage girl. With all my heart.