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Normal People's ordinariness is what makes it a TV treasure

  • "Despite what writers would have you think, love stories are not often epic," says Jeva Lange. "For every Paris and Helen, every Cleopatra and Mark Antony, every Dante and Beatrice, there are thousands upon thousands of unremarkable romances, ones that will never be written about, ones that have little significance to anyone beyond the couple themselves. They unfold not in the pages of plays or the verses of ballads or the stanzas of poetry, but in late night text messages, shy smiles in high school hallways, words murmured in the backseats of cars, windows steamed opaque." Lange says Normal People, the Hulu and BBC3 series that author Sally Rooney adapted from her novel and starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, "makes no false promises with its title. It is not a love story about a romance that fells an empire, cements a dynasty, or even one that provokes a grand finale — a rush through Grand Central Terminal, say, to stop a departing train. It is the very ordinariness of Normal People, though, that makes it an unmissable small screen treasure, an achingly everyday love story in which we might find, reflected, pieces of our own. Perhaps the most miraculous thing about Normal People, though, is that it somehow already exists. The show, which premiered in the U.K. last weekend, is based on Sally Rooney's novel of the same name, the one that was an Instagram status symbol this time last year. But for a seemingly rushed production aimed at capitalizing on the success of a trendy novel, the resulting show is tender, patient, and precise (I'll go on the record with my belief that it is even better than the book)." Lange adds: "Normal People finds the sweet spot, a way to present a story that is outwardly ordinary and mundane, but also to reel you in close enough to experience the thrill of first love, too. Because even if everyday love stories might not seem epic to outsiders, they always do to those inside them."


    • If someone can't get the feels from Normal People, you might want to check their pulse: "Drowning as we are in streaming rom-coms, it’s easy to forget what a show about real love might look like," says Hank Stuever. “Normal People, Hulu’s beautifully made, achy-breaky adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, is here to reckon with the possibilities of how first love feels — the thrumming ecstasies and deepest hurts. From the very first of its 12 half-hour (-ish) episodes, Normal People .... exemplifies the very idea of escapist, captivating storytelling — a love story that gets so close to the real deal that a viewer becomes as besotted as the lovers themselves. It’s one of the best works of TV I’ve watched so far this year, and the rare show during this pandemic stay-home saga that made me forget everything else."
    • Sex is at the core of Normal People, a lightning rod the show embraces with both hands: "Normal People follows a string of TV romantic comedies that took on the same subject with a more lighthearted and slapstick-y approach, physicality included," says Alison Herman. "Normal People, by contrast, is a straightforward romance, shrugging off the crutch of levity to go all in on magnetic attraction. Working with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, Mescal and Edgar-Jones are tasked with embodying their characters’ relationship as much as, if not more than, they speak it aloud. Rooney-written dialogue—'It doesn’t feel like this with other people'—has to be backed by tangible emotion. It’s a high bar that the production manages to meet. Many love stories run into a similar problem: Their conflict feels manufactured, the heroes kept apart by an artificial barrier. If only the protagonists would talk to each other, the viewer finds themselves yelling at their TV, a single adult conversation could solve their made-up problem. But Normal People isn’t about adults. The miscommunication between Marianne and Connell feels entirely believable, and therefore authentically tragic."
    • Seeing the sex scenes makes Normal People completely different from the book: "In Rooney’s novel, Marianne and Connell’s sex is mind-altering but not described in great physical detail. It often recedes into the background, like ambient music playing while the characters’ minds wander. Here’s the second time Connell and Marianne have sex," says Willa Paskin. "The novel foregrounds what’s happening in the characters’ minds, but cameras show what’s happening to their bodies. When the point of view swivels from inside to out , as it does in all adaptations, certain mechanical realities have to be addressed, and then become hard to ignore. The novel doesn’t have to get Marianne onto her hands and knees. But on camera, these sort of details don’t easily fade into the background. The sex in the show, however faithfully extracted from the book, emphasizes limbs and skin over brains, sacrificing psychological clarity for a kind of dreamy visual fecundity. Marianne and Connell only ever have serious, intense, tremulous sex, and they have it over and over again. They don’t do quickies or distraction, but they also don’t do lightness and laughter. It’s weepie cheesecake delivered in guilt-reducing, aesthetically heightened packaging: long bouts of what can only be termed lovemaking, overseen by an intimacy coordinator, rendered with tasteful mutual nudity, filmed by a gently realist camera, and enacted by excellent, fresh-faced young actors. Like I said: swoony but, despite the volume, not quite sexy."
    • Normal People requires viewers to pretend like the last 20 years of teen entertainment doesn't exist: "In a post-Not Another Teen Movie world, it’s difficult to experience these tropes—a jock with hidden depth and a brain with untapped lust—without a hint of irony, but that is exactly what Normal People asks of us," says Jourdain Searles. "It requires viewers to pretend like the last 20 years of teen entertainment don’t exist. Every clichéd element of the story is played painfully straight, with much of the series’ turmoil rooted in the couple’s inherent differences. This approach might work better if Marianne and Connell appeared to have any interior life outside of their respective backstories. Connell has a steady flow of angst as a result of his working-class background and quiet disposition. He falls in love with Marianne the moment he sees her, and then spends the next five years trying to deal with his feelings. The show reveals that he is a writer early on, but rarely shows any interest in the content of his work."
    • Normal People's love scenes feel genuinely sexy: "When they first hook up as teenagers in a small Irish town, she is a virgin and he is not, but they are almost immediately in sync as sexual partners," says Alan Sepinwall. "You can tell this as much by the sounds of their breaths rising and falling, growing faster and slower, as you can from the way their bodies move or the flush on their cheeks. Love scenes on film more often than not feel perfunctory, no matter how attractive the actors and how acrobatic the positions. But the ones here feel genuinely sexy, which is a crucial step to explaining the bond between Marianne and Connell. They fit together beautifully in many other ways — at least, when their respective demons aren’t keeping them at odds — but it’s when they’re in bed together that the match is the most obviously right."
    • Normal People is a crushingly intimate adaptation: "With its trifecta of elegant writing, directing, and acting, Hulu’s Normal People is just as bleak and uncompromising as Rooney’s novel — a feat, and one that takes several episodes to fully absorb," says Caroline Framke. "In fact, it took me until about halfway through to understand just how much it was affecting me; when I finally stepped away, it took a couple hours to blink away the weighty cloud of malaise the show inspired. (When the show does allow some moments of joy, they’re extremely welcome to the point of feeling downright luxurious.) As Marianne and Connell’s relationship grows deeper, Normal People becomes as immersive as the book that inspired it, making you both crave and dread knowing — or perhaps more accurately, experiencing — what happens next."
    • Normal People strips Sally Rooney's novel of its passion: "The BBC co-production is a polished but strangely muted interpretation of a narrative fueled by passion, trauma and loneliness—and it magnifies the novel’s faults," says Judy Berman, adding: "Skillfully written though it was, the book often felt to me like an exercise, its characters two sides of an unworkable equation. The show repeats this problem while also—despite ideal performances from Edgar-Jones and Mescal, who have perfect chemistry—robbing Marianne and Connell of interiority. A dusty palette, twee indie-folk soundtrack and excessive length render Rooney’s dynamic, psychologically rich prose inert...The result is hardly incompetent but never bold enough to transcend the standard literary adaptation. Isn’t the point of Normal People that Rooney’s characters are anything but?"
    • Watching Normal People is like walking through someone's memories: "Normal People tells its story in bursts and flashes, vignettes that glow up onscreen and fade into another," says James Poniewozik. "Watching it feels like walking through someone’s memories, sampling crucial bits of experience and image — a bike ride, a figure reflected in a pool — that, only in retrospect, turn out to have meant everything. I found it all moving and emotionally wrecking, in the best way. Some viewers, I imagine, will find it goopy, or much ado about a much-told story. (You will need patience for long, earnest college talks about society and art and fairness.) The series never really develops any characters outside the central pair — it only has eyes for them — and the last third or so feels slack, moping from one flavor of melancholy to another. But to someone with a palate for those flavors (a sad tooth?), Normal People is something special, a complex teen romance that captures how love can be a kind of rivalry without pushing the viewer to join Team Him or Team Her."
    • Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal's chemistry is what makes Normal People so special: "It was necessary that the two leads in this story have the right chemistry, but here, it’s off the charts," says Lea Palmieri. "Their performances are nothing short of phenomenal, and anyone who hopes the show stays true to the book is sure to be pleased. The way these two are able to balance the pressure and struggles of their social status with the yearning of their hearts and bodies is palpable. It is this on-screen chemistry that helps to make the show feel incredibly intimate and vulnerable and overwhelmingly effective. Where the book glosses over sex scenes, the show shows them, and in a way that is special and gorgeous. The whole vibe of Normal People; the look, the sound, the lighting, the camera placements, and the full cinematography here, contributes in such a vital way to how this story is told."
    • Normal People quietly taking its time will either turn viewers on or off: "Considering how elegantly the silence speaks in these episodes, and how expertly its stars use the airy, dialogue-free moments to allow their expressiveness to say aloud what their characters can't or more often refuse to, I doubt many will care about the production's fealty to the page," says Melanie McFarland. "More striking is the series' steady, unhurried pacing and its willingness to examine the weight of memory and regret. The series' insistent quietude either seduces you immediately or leaves one cold; Hulu has dropped the entire season in one swoop, enabling you to figure out which more or less immediately. However, given each episode's modest 30 minutes or less runtime, asking to take in Normal People sip by sip isn't unreasonable."
    • Obviously, the book is better—the book is always better: "Beyond illustrating the angst of their mutual attraction with a thousand penetrating angles, Normal People’s TV adaptation fails as both an adaptation and as a standalone show," says Sonia Saraiya. "Without the details of the book, the story is featureless erotica, 12 episodes of two gorgeous people struggling to handle the implications of their ferocious attraction. But having the book in mind might not help either, because the series strips Rooney’s novel of much of the tone and detail that makes Connell and Marianne worth reading about. I read the book after watching the full 12-episode season, and discovered so much more context and texture that I felt cheated. The problem with paring the novel down to just the lovey-dovey bits is that the process loses much of what makes Normal People memorable."
    • Normal People is best consumed alone: "In its depiction of first love, this series evokes something that — at least for me, and maybe for you — feels so personal and private that even having someone else in the room seems too intimate," says Anne Helen Petersen. "When I texted a friend to tell her that the show was premiering on Hulu this week, she said she’d spent the last weeks emotionally preparing herself. The novel the series is based on, by Sally Rooney, does things to people. It transports us back to our most tender and desirous selves. The show does too."
    • The show can't help but fail to reach the same level of emotional storytelling as the book: "While it's relatively easy for the novel to make multiple time jumps as periods of close friendship and intimate sex give way to months of little to no communication, the show struggles to effectively do the same, creating a pacing problem that hinders the back half of the show," says Kaitlin Thomas. "When a later episode details Connell's struggle with depression after the death of a childhood friend, it seemingly arrives out of nowhere and is gone just as quickly, a development that in effect reveals the show's greatest weakness: its inability to properly and authentically convey its characters' deepest thoughts and feelings. Rooney's novel, which is told from both characters' points of view, is deeply introspective, relying heavily on Marianne's and Connell's innermost thoughts to convey to the reader everything they're not saying aloud, either because they don't have someone they feel they can talk to (Marianne) or because they tend not to say much at all (Connell). Without this intimate access to the characters, their feelings, and their motivations (or lack thereof), the show can't help but fail to reach the same level of emotional storytelling."
    • The fascination of Normal People is not passion but disassociation: "Marianne and Connell’s relationship is not so much on-again-off-again as it exists in a new and very modern state of being simultaneously always on and always off," says Rachel Syme. "They are both connected and isolated, running on parallel tracks, always missing each other even when they are in constant communication. Even though this is a mode I instantly recognize from being in the world now—this sense of being always available and also fiercely guarded in the same breath—I’ve never seen a love story like it on television before."
    • Normal People takes young love seriously, as well as its love scenes: "In its initial three episodes, Normal People sets a precedent for what will become a signature aspect of the series: sex scenes that are explicit, tender, and extraordinarily intimate," says Jen Chaney. "The second episode in particular could rightly be described as a series of love scenes interrupted briefly by some exchanges of dialogue. Lenny Abrahamson, the Oscar-nominated director of Room, who handles the first six episodes, and television veteran Hettie MacDonald, who directs the latter six, alternate between semi-wide shots of naked bodies interlocking and tight close-ups on the faces of their leads as they lose themselves, repeatedly, to heated moments. The series leaves pretty much no body part unexposed, and yet the sex never seems gratuitous. It is vital because it demonstrates the instinct that Marianne and Connell have to love and honor each other, even though other aspects of their lives often make it difficult to demonstrate those same feelings publicly and consistently." Chaney adds: "In addition to crafting a love story that’s easy to get swept up in, Normal People also explores class and privilege, the insidious impact of abuse, and how what seem like silly teenage interactions can shape one’s sense of identity well into adulthood. There’s a tendency to dismiss high-school relationships as temporary, meaningless connections that fade once we grow up and forge our way in a wider world where, at least for many, it’s much easier to find your people. While Rooney’s series acknowledges that individuals evolve as they grow older, it also does something that only the best coming-of-age stories do: it treats young adults with respect and takes their relationships, especially first loves, seriously. It is well aware that those relationships leave permanent marks."
    • Normal People has probably the best grasp on how to use sex to develop character of any TV series since Outlander: "Normal People tracks Marianne and Connell’s shifting dynamic primarily through increasingly graphic sex scenes, and mostly, the choice works," says Constance Grady, adding: "It becomes clear very early on that sex is what Marianne thinks she has to offer in a relationship, because she doesn’t like herself very much and thinks Connell is a better person than she is. And it’s where Connell thinks he can meet Marianne in equal partnership, because he doesn’t like himself very much and thinks Marianne is smarter than he is."
    • Normal People's internal strife and depth of its lead characters can’t be translated on screen seamlessly: "As good as the sex scenes are, they can feel like a replacement for a deeper context to the characters’ relationship, one that may be impossible to translate to a screen in a show that relishes and romanticizes silence and missed connection," says Hazel Cills. "We’re told that Connell and Marianne are successful, talented writers, but whereas in the book we’re privy to their emails (Connell’s are 'beautiful,' Marianne tells him), texts, and descriptions of Connell’s work, that’s all more or less wiped away in the show. As the characters retreat from high school and college scenes into darker territory, struggling with depression, eating disorders, and S&M tendencies, the show’s timeline becomes jumbled, failing to illustrate the forces behind these shifts. Normal People may be a more commercial, tactile romance on-screen than it is on the page—and certainly steamier—but the cerebral characters who made the book’s generic tensions famous and unique feel softened, just out of focus."
    • Normal People is not the kind of show you should binge-watch: "The episodes of Normal People, while presented in 30 minutes or less, are not easy to digest," says Tiffany Kelly. "Each one carries a heavy emotional weight, so it’s not a show you’ll want to binge-watch. Instead, this is a story to digest over several days, or even a week. It’s a worthwhile investment, though, and it offers a satisfying conclusion. Normal People is ultimately about how one person can greatly impact your whole life."
    • Breaking down how Normal People the book vs. the TV series
    • Connell’s “wee silver chain” is the sexiest part of Normal People
    • Paul Mescal admits to feeling pressure in portraying Connell: "Absolutely, because anybody who reads the book has a very clear idea (of who Connell is)," he says. "And normally any person that I ask, they always reference themselves to the characters. And I am going to be the visual representation of this imagined character for a lot of people. So there definitely is a pressure with that. I didn't feel that so much when we were filming. I feel it now in the lead up in the final few days before it airs."
    • Daisy Edgar-Jones and Mescal think Connell and Marianne would be great at quarantining:  “They’re both quite solitary people anyway, so they’d probably be fine,” Edgar-Jones says, with a laugh. “Yeah, (they’d) definitely do loads of reading and overthinking about stuff. It’d be great.” Mescal adds: “Imagine the kind of mad conversations they’d both have with each other. They’d be at the forefront of understanding the trends of the pandemic and the economic impact it’s going to have. They’d definitely be a good sounding board to have in your flat, I think.”
    • Mescal says it was "odd" watching Normal People's sex scenes with his family: "I have a younger sister and that's the weird one," he says. "Whereas my mum and dad pretend to be cool with it, and I have a brother who is genuinely cool with it. I just have to tell my sister — because some of them are quite long — 'you have to take a walk.'"
    • Mescal kept a copy of the book on hand while filming: "I re-read and re-read and re-read," he says. "When you've got a piece of source material as rich as that, that you're not going to get in every job, you definitely embrace it."
    • Sally Rooney learned that adapting her novel for TV isn't easy: "Sitting down to write the scripts was like, 'Oh, my God, these characters never say what they mean," she says. "They never do what they want to do.' Half of the book is like, 'She said this, but what she actually was thinking was (this).' I mean, not in so many words, but that's a huge part of the book. It's about the disparity between your interior life and the external stuff that you project out into the world." Rooney learned that the success of the series would be based on the actors portraying Connell and Marianne. "It was a big leap of faith that we were going to find people who would just get it and would know exactly how to communicate that friction between the inner life and the outer world," she says.
    • Rooney understands the strong connection readers have with Connell and Marianne: “I think people like love stories,” she says. “And, hopefully, it’s a kind of romance that feels rooted in the real texture of everyday experience. What I tried to do when writing the book was to convey the feeling of very intense desire and love, but not in a way that was removed from the mundane nature of our everyday lives. That feels true to how we experience the boring, unglamorous parts of our lives and the difficult, complicated parts of our realities, but also leaves room for that feeling of just being ravished with romance.”
    • Normal People was greenlighted as a TV show before it was released as a book -- before it even gained an obsessive following: The producers got BBC to make Normal People before they obtained the rights. “We were able to go to Sally,” says Ed Guiney of Element Pictures, “and say that if we’re lucky enough to get this book, the BBC promises to make it. This was really persuasive.” Rooney then became heavily involved in Normal People's development, co-writing the first six episodes. “It would be interesting to give Rooney drafts of the later episodes,” says director Lenny Abrahamson. “It was great to listen to her impulses and if they pushed in a different direction, and when they did it was usually subtle, but always worth listening to.” For example, Abrahamson says that one thing Rooney pushed for was that Marianne not be too likable. He says that she was insistent that the character had a “grating” quality to her and that she was “properly spikey and she can be difficult.”
    • Intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien's work bringing professionalism to sex scenes was especially valuable on Normal People: "The sex between teenagers you’re likely to see on television at the moment is frequently fumbling and hilarious (Sex Education) or designed to shock (Euphoria)," reports Eleanor Stanford. "But in Normal People, the intimacy of these moments between Marianne and Connell is so distinct, especially their first time together, you almost feel like an intruder. The production hired an intimacy coordinator, and thought carefully about how to translate the physical and emotional vulnerability of the book for television in a way that was respectful to both the original story and the actors performing it. The environment was warm and supportive, Daisy Edgar-Jones, the British actor who plays Marianne, said on set. But she added that some of the heavier scenes had stayed with her. Filming the period when Marianne is very depressed and looking to violent sex for comfort left Edgar-Jones, 21, feeling “really strange for a few days; it’s hard not to take that stuff on. Overall, though, the show’s prevailing themes, as represented by Marianne and Connell’s relationship, are inspirational, she said."

    TOPICS: Normal People, BBC3, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Ed Guiney, Hettie Macdonald, Ita O’Brien, Lenny Abrahamson , Paul Mescal, Sally Rooney, Sex