Having a Northern Irish boyfriend has been an enlightening experience. Very early in our relationship I had to learn the meaning of the word “craic”, and now I know it, I see it everywhere, like smug couples when you’re painfully single. I’ve been introduced to Bikers crisps, which are sort of like Monster Munch in the way they burn your taste buds with dusty acidity, only shaped like wheels. And I’ve been inducted into the farce-filled world of The Young Offenders.
Describing a TV show by equating it with other similar TV shows is one of the clichés of criticism, and a reductive one, but in this case it is illustrative: The Young Offenders is like Derry Girls meets The Inbetweeners – by which I mean it’s Irish and about adolescent boys.
Jock and Conor are best mates from Cork (the human body is capable of emitting no noise weirder or more wonderful than a thick Cork accent) – best mates to the extent that they celebrate the anniversary of the day Conor formally asked Jock to be his best mate. Though they are comically different in stature, they look alike in every other possible way: matching “Connell” chains, matching Henry V haircuts, matching “I love me mam” tattoos. They both have dead parents, too – Jock’s mum and Conor’s dad. When they’re not attending St Finan’s Community School (until they get expelled, that is, for urinating on the headteacher), they’re stealing bikes – “disguised” in masks, but still wearing their school uniform – and attempting to elude the Garda, also on bikes, leading to lots of careening bike chases. Theirs is a world of beige dinners, battered cars and gobby kids on estates.
They may be layabout criminals, but they’re well-meaning, endearingly stupid ones. All three series of The Young Offenders (available on BBC iPlayer) are a ludicrous escalation of Jock and Conor’s capers, japes and schemes (I realise these words mean the same thing, but a little tautology is necessary to communicate the scale): attempting to steal a duck, a snow machine, a €50,000 bluefin tuna. They are occasionally joined in their exploits by “local nut-job” Billy Murphy and, in the most recent series, by Jock’s baby daughter, Star – “We’re bringing her as cover. No one’s gonna suspect three dads on a heist.”
The Inbetweeners comparison is most expository when it comes to Jock and Conor’s experience – or lack of – with girls. Jock gives Conor a lot of very bad advice: “Come on boy, it’s easy. All you gotta do is put your lips up against her lips and put your tongue through, like a letterbox.” And “foreplay”, he explains, refers to the four plays – which are too inappropriate to list in these pages. That the two particular girls they happen to be trying to “shift” (kiss), Siobhan and Linda, are the daughters of their school principal – a man with a Ned Flanders moustache who is so uptight he seems permanently on the edge of either going on a murderous rampage or collapsing into a sobbing ball – is asking for trouble.
The laughs are both daft (slapstick and toilet humour) and offbeat (“You’re getting tears all over your chips”), but there is tenderness, too, so you never quite know where The Young Offenders will take you. A day skiving off school in an attempt to win over Siobhan and Linda ends with the four paying their respects at Jock’s mam’s grave with a slightly flat rendition of “With or Without You”. Conor’s mother, Máiréad, dishes out expletive-laden tough love; like many of the characters here, she may not be kind, but she is good. In one scene she lays into Jock – “[Conor] wants to be just like you. And that’s my problem, ’cause you’re nothing but a little scumbag” – and in the next, rescues him from the flailing fists of his alcoholic father and tells him to pack a bag, he’s coming home with her. She may not like him, but she will be his mother.
It’s this that makes The Young Offenders the perfect watching for the present moment. It’s silly, yes, but also a reminder that among the scuffles of life there are moments of human goodness and light. And if watching two teenage degenerates attempting to wrestle an obscenely large fish into a shopping trolley is what I need to laugh right now, get me to the fishmonger’s.
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden