This review may contain spoilers for Derry Girls Season 3.
When I watched Derry Girls’ first two seasons last spring, I binged it all in four glorious hours. I consider the pilot to be perfect: a smashingly tight 22 minutes that expertly introduced viewers to a cast of vibrant, distinct characters with cracker (to borrow an Irish phrase) Irish accents whose various personalities and quirks clashed and fused to get them into darkly funny situations.
Over the course of those two seasons, the show proved itself to be a cleverly written, brilliantly cast, truly memorable sitcom. Its third and final season already premiered in the United Kingdom earlier this April, and only just arrived in the United States via Netflix. Before that, I was frantically searching “derry girls season 3 when” on Google for over a year. Naturally, I was ecstatic for season three to come out on Netflix in the States. I even set aside a whole day for it. My bubble unfortunately was burst when the season arrived.
What makes Derry Girls so resonant is its sense of identity. Yes, it’s exceptionally funny and well-written, but a lot of the joy of watching the show comes from the fact that it follows these four girls (plus James) and their families as they come of age in Ireland in the mid-90s. Episode plotlines felt specific to the time and place – they would constantly lampoon the characters’ Catholic school education or incorporate real-life events like Bill Clinton’s visit to Derry. Even storylines that didn’t have much to do with Irish identity (like season two’s standout wedding episode) would do what the show did best: put all of its errant personalities into a well-constructed plot, with everyone driving it to its natural conclusion.
Season three doesn’t do much to retain the core of the show that came before it, and the end result feels depressingly hollow. Every single plotline this season is dull and one-dimensional. Gone are the rich setups and interconnected subplots. Instead, characters are more often than not split up and relegated to tiny, inconsequential plotlines. It’s truly a shame, as I absolutely relish the character dynamics that so often drive the series.
Perhaps the worst offender is the episode “Stranger on a Train,” where there are three separate but equally unimportant things going on: Claire (Nicola Coughlin) is stuck at a train station with Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney), her school’s headmistress. Meanwhile, on the train (which Claire missed), Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), Orla (Louisa Harland), Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), and James (Dylan Llewellyn) try to inconspicuously swap back a stranger’s bag for James’ bag after they were unwittingly switched. While this is happening, Ma Mary (Tara Lynne O’Niell) and Aunt Sarah (Kathy Kiera Clarke) try to navigate a vague conversation with a stranger who claims to know them. The punchline of all three of these plots amounts to “Well, isn’t this awkward?”
The rest of the episodes oscillate between being incredibly anticlimactic or manufacturing extreme drama to the point of being laughable. The first episode sees the girls breaking into the school to see their exam results, only to unwittingly assist in a robbery. It’s really just an excuse to give us a Liam Neeson cameo as the police Chief Inspector. It’s a moment that admittedly works and made me excited for the rest of the season, even though the exam and robbery plotlines are resolved in a matter of seconds. I was hoping that Liam Neeson’s appearance meant we might see other Irish greats Colin Farrell or Cillian Murphy pop up for the show’s final season, but alas.
Another episode employs the classic misunderstanding/miscommunication trope that sitcoms are so fond of to imply that Ma Mary is having an affair with a plumber, played by the dependably boring Damien Molony (see also: Brassic, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Crashing). It lays it on thick with the double-entendres and phone calls we only hear one side of, only to reveal that Mary is thinking of going to college to study English literature (something that’s never explored past this episode). It’s all frustratingly basic and boring to watch knowing that the show is capable of something leaps and bounds better.
When the season isn’t devolving into stale tropes, it’s introducing wildly dramatic events at the very last minute, apropos of nothing. I can’t imagine why - the show doesn’t really go for these moments in general, but over the course of the first two seasons we’ve seen touching displays of love and vulnerability from its characters. This time around, the big emotional moments are conjured from thin air, and serve to drive conflict rather than give us sweet little character moments. The first one occurs during a thinly-plotted “haunted house” episode, where James confesses that he likes Erin a lot and always has, and then the two kiss. That James likes Erin has never even been hinted at in the show, much less expressed explicitly. He did take her to the prom, but only after Erin’s first date bailed on her, which led Mary to call James. It was understood to be a friendly thing, and wasn’t even the central plot of that episode.
The best episode of the season, “Halloween,” also can’t help but be marred by a baffling story choice. Fatboy Slim is set to perform in Derry. When James has to fight someone for the tickets, he panics and rips them up so he doesn’t have to fight anyone (which is just classic James). Eventually they get tickets because James fakes an injury by saying he was mugged for the tickets. What follows is an episode that, while not hitting the peaks of the show, lets its characters be themselves as they go to the concert and try to keep the ruse up. And then, Erin’s dad shows up to tell the kids that Claire’s dad is in the hospital. The episode ends with Claire’s dad dying, and we briefly see the funeral procession.
I’m trying to impart just how completely unexpected and unearned this moment is. There’s never been any mention of her dad having some sort of illness or health issue, etc. In fact, he’s only appeared in a handful of episodes! His death in the second-to-last episode of the show feels lazy and downright manipulative on the part of the showrunners. We don’t need these big tragic things to happen to the characters in order to feel for them – we care about them because the first two seasons took the time to craft well-rounded characters.
Even in the series finale, the writers try to pack in a last-minute conflict between Erin and Michelle. This episode revolves around the Good Friday Agreement as everyone prepares to vote. Apparently, Michelle has had a brother this whole time, yet another detail that was never mentioned until now. He was part of the IRA, and is in jail for killing someone, but it’s possible he’ll be released. Erin doesn’t believe he should be released, while Michelle is obviously more hopeful. The plotline itself isn’t bad – in fact, it’s probably the most serious way that the show engages with The Troubles, and shows us a side of Michelle we rarely, if ever, get to see. I’d have no issue with it if it had happened earlier in the series, or if we at least just knew beforehand that Michelle had a brother in jail.
I do appreciate the political themes and how Erin and Michelle represent a larger national debate, but the show doesn’t typically navigate these issues in this way so it ends up feeling out of place. The ending of the show feels similarly cheap. After the Good Friday Agreement passes, we flash forward to the present day, where a letter the girls wrote in season two gets delivered to Chelsea Clinton. It’s cute, but a cameo starring the former President of the United States’ daughter based on a throwaway joke in an earlier episode doesn’t ring true with the series’ identity.
It’s hard to offer much praise for this season because so much of the show’s personality is hampered by the nonsensical and dismal storytelling. We still get some great character moments: James’ aforementioned ripping up of the tickets to avoid conflict, and the finale kick- off which follows the eccentric Orla as she registers to vote in the Good Friday Agreement, after which she ends up traipsing around the streets of Derry and doing an impromptu dance routine with some schoolchildren.
Clearly, the writers still know their characters well enough, but have failed at delivering an effective final season. Instead, we have something that only just manages to squeak by off the strength of its talented cast. I want to chalk this up to production delays and extenuating circumstances from the pandemic, but series creator Lisa McGee has been quoted as saying three seasons was always the plan for Derry Girls. It’s a goodbye that’s, unfortunately, more bitter than sweet.