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Laugh Till It Hurts … or Hurt Till You Laugh

Shows like ‘Reservation Dogs’ and ‘Derry Girls’ are expert at highlighting the mix of agony and ecstasy that can define growing up in hard times

FX/Netflix/Ringer illustration

“Imagine being born there and not here! We don’t know how lucky we are.”

So observes Clare Devlin, one of the four teenage protagonists from the painfully funny Irish sitcom Derry Girls, which premiered on Channel 4 in Britain in 2018 and is currently streaming on Netflix. It’s the first day of a new year of high school in the mid-’90s, and Clare is meditating on the plight of starving children in sub-Saharan Africa. Soon, their conversation is interrupted by two machine-gun-wielding soldiers who jump onto their school bus and begin screaming threats and accusations. The young women are unperturbed. The Derry girls live in Northern Ireland at a time when the Troubles are still very much roiling, and machine guns on school buses are little more than a periodic nuisance.

Luck is not a quantifiable concept. It’s not mathematics. Luck is conditional and highly relative. On even our luckiest days, when the weather is beautiful and our spirits are high and our needs are being met at every turn, it remains entirely feasible that on some distant planet, a utopian species of pleasure-addled demigods are watching from afar and thinking: “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen!” They would not be wrong, and neither would we.

The nightmare of the Northern Ireland conflict, known colloquially as the Troubles, was a long-simmering tangle of ethnic, religious, and economic grievances that exploded into violence in the late 1960s and remained enmeshed in Irish life for three decades. Roughly 3,500 people died in the conflict throughout England and Ireland, as Irish separatists seeking independence from Britain fought loyalists hoping to remain a part of the U.K., and paramilitary groups on both sides engaged in a brutal campaign of public bombings and other guerrilla tactics. Although most citizens of Northern Ireland had no active participation in the fighting, harrowing complications from the conflict became part of everyday life, as the specter of sudden violence loomed over even the most seemingly harmless of distractions. In 1982, a bomb ripped through the Droppin’ Well discotheque near Derry, killing 11 British soldiers and six civilians. This was the waking nightmare of a war fought away from a traditional battlefield or rules of engagement. You can, and should, watch a documentary about it. But people don’t live in a documentary, they live in the world. And even in a world where a night out dancing could get you killed, you still have to go to high school.

Derry Girls showcases the other costs of combat. When a bomb is discovered on a bridge, a tanning appointment has to be canceled. When IRA assailants hijack the van of a particularly boring uncle, the entire family is obligated to listen to him recount the events in exquisitely tedious detail. The background noise of the nightly news is a shrill drumbeat of chaos and carnage, but there are still boys to chase and concerts to attend and Catholic school nuns to endlessly vex. And most of all there is the hilariously strenuous turmoil of the girls’ shifting but tender devotions for one another. The beautiful essence of Derry Girls lies in its recognition that nothing—not even fighting in the streets—can disrupt the panoramically batshit experience of female adolescence.

Troubles are likewise afoot for the brash but good-natured clique who populate Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s justifiably lionized series Reservation Dogs, which is nearing the end of its first season on FX. Set on an unnamed reservation in Oklahoma, the four Indigenous teens at the center of the story have taken up a life of minor criminality in the hopes of escaping to California, a place they theorize might be better—or, at least, a place that couldn’t possibly be worse. Their forward momentum is stalled by the appearance in town of a rival gang gunning for supremacy, although “gang” is probably a bit of an exaggeration for what is essentially a ragtag band of extra jerky kids. Nevertheless, with the gauntlet thrown, our protagonists find themselves stuck between a desire to defend their home turf and the powerful yearning for greener grass.

Like Derry Girls, Reservation Dogs is a half-hour comedy that manages the neat trick of being immediately relatable to anyone who’s ever been a teenager while simultaneously depicting something unfamiliar to many viewers’ experiences. Each of our heroes’ misadventures reveals something new about reservation life to outsiders—its pleasures and deprivations, and the ways in which the two frequently overlap. In the second episode, a beatdown of the show’s lead character Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) results in a surreal guided tour of the reservation’s health care system. Later, an effort at consulting a tribal elder on the specifics of fistfighting results in a fruitless attempt at helping him offload a raft of sadly impotent homegrown weed. With each comic tribulation we feel the protagonists being torn between loyalty to tradition and desire for upward mobility growing equally in both directions. That this tension is ultimately unresolvable is Reservation Dogs’ home truth. Stay or go—it doesn’t really matter. Who you are is just another way of saying where you’re from.

Derry Girls and Reservation Dogs are hardscrabble stories told with such unabashed mirth that they can feel genuinely subversive. The recontextualization of events and places that have often been depicted as tragic is at once a relief and a shock. During the Great Depression, social realist melodramas like The Grapes of Wrath and Looking Forward wrung pathos from a forensic cataloging of the human toll of grinding poverty. Other pictures managed the same by barely showing it at all: The musical comedy Gold Diggers of 1933 portrays four out-of-work show girls with a sliding scale of personal ethics making ends meet in whatever ways circumstances allow. So thoroughly antic is the depiction of their capers, even the regular references to bread lines and catastrophic unemployment do nothing to break the spell. That is until the film’s final set piece: The Busby Berkeley–choreographed and directed “Remember My Forgotten Man,” whose parade of economically abandoned zombie-fied veterans is one of the most disturbing political broadsides in American cinema.

This is, of course, the narrative advantage of making light sport of the Great Depression for 90 straight minutes before suddenly rendering the nightmare manifest. Had the “Remember My Forgotten Man” sequence occurred during the final six minutes of The Grapes of Wrath, it would still be chilling, but you’d have been conditioned for it. Coming at the conclusion of Gold Diggers of 1933, it’s a gut punch, returning us all at once to the larger realities of the scenario. The final episode of Season 1 of Derry Girls culminates with a similarly breathtaking juxtaposition. Internecine rivalries strain the girls’ solidarity as old friendships are tested by the dawning realities of young adulthood. One of their number fleetingly takes over the school newspaper, The Habit, and publishes a controversial article about lesbianism. There’s a talent show featuring step aerobics. All of it is deeply funny and engrossing, and then in the final moments we cut away to a news report of a bloody attack that has left numerous civilians dead. The ending montage, set to the Cranberries’ “Dreams,” flashes back and forth between adults grimly regarding the carnage on television while the reunited girls caper hilariously and blissfully unwittingly on stage. It’s overwhelming: so much hope adjacent to so much hurt.

Derry Girls and Reservation Dogs were born out of a microgenre wherein comedy flourishes in settings most have been allowed to see only as tragic. As Harjo recently explained to NPR about his overarching thesis for Reservation Dogs: “Let’s make a comedy, because that’s really reflective of our communities. They’re hilarious. And we’re survivors. And a lot of the reasons we survived is because of our humor.” The characters on these shows have a great deal arrayed against them, but also few crucial things weighing in their favor: the resilience of youth, the comfort of companionship, and the hard-won wisdom of adversity. Maybe it seems funny, but they know how lucky they are.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.