“They told us we were young — yet we understood the enormity of it,” a Northern Irish voice intones theatrically over grainy footage of schoolgirls in plaid skirts juxtaposed with soldiers carrying heavy guns. “We understood what was at stake.” Then, the sound of a VHS player eating its tape. The footage blurs. A group of teenagers are hunched around a yellowing TV monitor, sighing. “We need to face the fact that we’ve spent the summer making something that’s really quite shite.”
The third series of Derry Girls begins rather like its first. (In the show’s opening episode, a similarly scene-setting voiceover about a young person growing up in 1990s Derry is revealed not to be a voiceover at all, but Erin’s diary being read aloud by her tactless cousin Orla.) The fundamental joke of the series has always been that these teenagers aren’t particularly interested in the enormity of the Troubles, whether they understand it or not. Being teenagers, they’re far more concerned with their grades, their peers, their sex lives and elbowing their way to the front of a Take That concert.
This is the final season of the beloved Channel 4 comedy, and there’s a pervading sense that this is the beginning of the end of these characters’ schooldays. When we last saw Erin, Orla, Claire, Michelle and James, they had just attended their prom. Now the holidays are nearly over and they’re awaiting their GCSE results with a level of anxiety that has reached the hysterical. “Passing those exams was our only chance!” Claire shouts. “We’re girls, we’re poor, we’re from Northern Ireland and we’re Catholic, for God’s sake!”
The farcical, anarchic absurdity of the sitcom remains. This episode involves a school break-in gone wrong and a road trip taken under the cover of night to dispose of the corpse of a neighbour’s pet rabbit. As with all the best character-driven sitcoms, the same comic beats return again and again, but somehow get funnier each time.
Erin is still as arrogant and insecure as ever: Saoirse-Monica Jackson gives an all-timer of a comic performance, her elastic face stretched out in haughtiness one second, then crumpling in on itself with embarrassment the next (in Erin’s most awkward moments, her chin fully retracts into her neck). Nichola Coughlan’s Claire vibrates with almost-repressed rage and fear. These two are particularly compelling when set against each other. “You’ve dragged me down to your level” Claire spits. “Your stupidity has finally rubbed off on me! I was a scholar before I met you, Erin, a scholar!”
“You were three!” Erin shoots back.
Louisa Harland’s Orla remains charmingly spacey, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell is particularly charismatic as the impulsive and foul-mouthed Michelle. The supporting cast of Erin and Orla’s extended family continue to provide some of the funniest moments in the show, along with Siobhán McSweeney’s dryly sarcastic Sister Michael: “I’d say our Lord is up there now, looking down on the world, thinking: the floods and the famine can wait, for there is a child in Derry who needs me to magically alter the contents of an envelope.”
The series’ nostalgic magic lies in the specificity with which it captures its characters in their time and place. And so creator Lisa McGee’s decision to bring it to an end after three seasons and 18 episodes feels right. But as with many of the great British sitcoms of the 21st century, it seems certain that Derry Girls — like a grainy old VHS tape rewound and replayed — will be watched and rewatched long after it has finished.