Television Series #3:
“Normal People” (2020) swept the nation when it was released as a Hulu original, after generating widespread fanfare as a novel of the same name by Sally Rooney, even appearing on former president Barack Obama’s top favorites list. Taking place in the fictional small town of Carricklea, Ireland, the first portion of the story follows teenagers Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal), who attend the same private high school, but fall into very different crowds. Connell is considerably more popular, an athlete who has a large group of friends, whereas Marianne is a quippy loner who prides herself on her superior intelligence and self-sufficiency. They quietly become friends when Connell goes to pick his mother up from Marianne’s residence where she works as a cleaning lady. The two come from starkly different backgrounds and their growing romantic tension is obstructed by their social circles and the desire to remain status quo.
Marianne comes from money, but her family is difficult – her brother is abusive, her mother cold and distant, and her father non-existent. Connell has a close, loving relationship with his single mom, but they struggle for means. “Normal People” thoughtfully depicts the consequences of trauma, miscommunications, self-loathing and insecurity, as Marianne and Connell embark on a romance that changes their lives forever, inextricably tying them to one another for years to come.
The novel is emotive and simple. It is heartbreaking and intelligent. Rooney writes the characters with such depth and specificity that the feelings become transferrable to the reader in a way that is difficult to master. To bring a work like this to the screen with the same level of visceral intensity was no easy feat and expectations were high for creators Lenny Abrahamson (Academy Award winning director of 2015’s “Room”) and English director Hettie Macdonald (“Doctor Who“). Magnificently, and with the screenwriting help by the author herself (Rooney teamed with Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe), the series achieves the same level of potency as the book.
Edgar-Jones and Mescal, as a pair, have the best on-screen chemistry since “The Notebook” (2004) and the performances are completely tender and uninhibited throughout. It often feels like the viewers are peering through the walls, watching something personal and intimate. The series, given its longer running time (as opposed to settling for a 2 hour film of sorts), is illuminating and nuanced. It is one of the most delightfully emotive shows of its time, and reflects the millennial age group with more depth and sincerity than the usual slate. It is bleak in its realistic approach, refusing to compromise.
This is a show that is felt more than merely watched. Relating to our most frustrated attempts to articulate ourselves in the technology-driven world, it sharpens in on the belabored process of trying to form something real in that superficiality, and also the very human inability to communicate in general. It is also just a really beautiful look at what it means to have a real connection with someone, and that no matter the outcome, lives are changed when those paths are crossed. “Normal People” is a must-see and should be enjoyed in both its forms.