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The Loneliness of Young Adulthood Is on Full Display in Netflix's One Day

Like Hulu's Normal People, the romantic drama captures how difficult and isolating this chapter of life can be.
  • Left: Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in Normal People; right: Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in One Day (Photos: Everett Collection/Netflix)
    Left: Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in Normal People; right: Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in One Day (Photos: Everett Collection/Netflix)

    If one were to base their expectations for their twenties and early thirties purely on television, they’d almost certainly be disappointed. Despite the enduring popularity of sitcoms like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and New Girl, very few of us spend these years conveniently sharing an apartment building with all of our closest friends and frequenting the same restaurant or bar together every evening. In reality, young adulthood can often be just as eye-opening, confusing, and difficult to navigate as adolescence, even if television rarely reflects that. Those seeking a little more realism in stories about this chapter of life may find it in a surprising new source: Netflix’s One Day.

    Based on the 2009 novel by David Nicholls, the limited series follows Dexter Mayhew (Leo Woodall) and Emma Morley (Ambika Mod), who spend a fateful night together after their university graduation, and subsequently remain in each other’s lives. Each episode takes place on the same calendar date (July 15) over the years, spanning from the characters’ first night together through their thirties. The plot itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking: It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers who, despite obviously being meant to be, can just never seem to get the timing right. What makes One Day stand out, however, is how succinctly it captures the loneliness of young adulthood — and, in many ways, it’s not so different from another recent-ish book adaptation, Normal People.

    Released on Hulu in 2020, Normal People — based on the Sally Rooney novel of the same name — centers on the complicated relationship between Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) as they navigate the end of secondary school through their undergraduate years. At the start of the series, Marianne is an outcast who’s disliked by her peers for her outspokenness and Connell is a popular athlete whose mother works as a housecleaner for Marianne’s family. Despite their differences, they find themselves drawn to each other and begin a secret sexual relationship. Later, when they both attend Trinity College, Marianne thrives socially while Connell struggles to adapt. Over the years, they fall in love, break each other’s hearts, get back together, break each other's hearts again… sound familiar?

    There are, of course, some major differences between One Day and Normal People. Although both shows are considered romances, One Day presents itself as a tear-jerker love story (the same source material was behind the 2011 flick starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess), while Normal People is more of a psychological drama. Additionally, the One Day characters are slightly older. However, at their cores, both shows portray characters in transitional periods of their lives struggling to build meaningful relationships and find purpose.

    The characters may not seem too similar at first glance, but they have a lot in common beneath their surfaces. While Dexter comes from a wealthy family and has a bit of a womanizer reputation, Connell was born to a poor single mother and deals with social anxiety. As their arcs progress, both protagonists majorly struggle to adapt to life’s changes and challenges. Dexter turns to substance use to cope with his failing television career and his mother dying from cancer. In one of his lowest moments, he shows up to his parents’ house blackout drunk and stumbling — when his father kicks him out and drops him off at the train station, he frantically calls Emma at the payphone and leaves her a series of desperate voicemails. In a similarly self-destructive fashion, Connell feels extremely out of place in his new university environment and copes by isolating himself and pushing people away. Then later, when an old friend of his dies by suicide, he falls into a deep depression.

    Their female counterparts also have a difficult time believing they deserve to be loved. This is reflected in their relationships — despite Emma’s obvious feelings for Dexter, she begins a romance with her coworker, Ian (Jonny Weldon). Though Ian loves her, her heart is clearly not in it. As Dexter harshly puts it, “I don’t know what you said you wanted from this world, but I’m sure this wasn’t it. Throwing your lot in with someone who adores you, who you don’t love.” Yet, she stays with Ian for years because it’s easy and safe compared to Dexter’s unpredictability. Marianne has a string of relationships with men whose behavior is violent and awful, but also familiar; the way Jamie (Fionn O’Shea) and Lukas (Lancelot Ncube) act is reminiscent of how her abusive brother Alan (Frank Blake) has treated her throughout her life. She clings to these relationships because it’s what she’s used to, whereas Connell represents a completely different, unfamiliar type of love.

    In essence, both shows are really about loneliness and how even being with “the one” can’t necessarily fill that void unless you’re also content with yourself. In Episode 11 of Normal People, Marianne tells Connell, “I’m never lonely when I’m with you,” to which he responds that he doesn’t think he was ever “really happy” before her. Yet in the finale — spoiler — she chooses to stay behind in Dublin while he moves to New York to pursue an MFA in creative writing, bittersweetly remarking that they both “have done so much good for one another” and that they’ll “be okay.” As for Dexter, he’s forced to confront a world without Emma and accept that he can’t stop living despite losing her. Both sets of characters grapple repeatedly with feelings of isolation and self-doubt as they mature over the years, then eventually have to learn to deal with navigating scary new chapters on their own.

    Though they differ in tone, One Day and Normal People ultimately find common ground in their harsher portrayals of young adult years. It feels like a new subgenre of coming-of-age stories may be upon us — the success of shows like Fleabag and Insecure proves there’s a vested interest in stories about characters in their twenties and early thirties who are, well, struggling. While our teenage years are certainly formative, no one magically has life figured out the second they graduate from high school. One Day and Normal People both recognize that, despite what shows like Friends might have led us to believe, young adulthood can be difficult and lonely.

    One Day Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix. Normal People is available on Hulu.

    Kelly Martinez is an entertainment freelance writer covering all things TV, movies, and fandoms. She is based in Los Angeles.

    TOPICS: One Day, Hulu, Netflix, Normal People, Ambika Mod, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Leo Woodall, Paul Mescal