It’s Not Like This with Other People
Series Review: “Normal People”
Quietly groundbreaking, the story of two Irish teens as they navigate an intense attraction while struggling to make their way in the world.
How ‘serious’ can First Love be, especially when the couple is still in high school and hail from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds, causing them to keep their relationship a secret? That seems to be the central question behind the instantly addictive 12-part limited series, Normal People, which made international stars out of its lead actors, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.
They play Marianne and Connell, two classmates in a small town in Western Ireland, whose respective family backgrounds and polar opposite social statuses wouldn’t normally invite a connection on any level. Were it not for their inherent academic competitiveness with each other — and the fact that Paul’s single mother works as a maid in Marianne’s home — they would barely acknowledge each other in school. And yet, they are singularly aware of each other, and it’s not long before this budding interest turns suddenly sexual, albeit furtive. What is unexpected is the level of emotion — mature and adult — at the heart of their intense sexual chemistry. Because of their youth, however, the tensions inherent in their differences -compounded by the burden of engaging in such a secret and powerful connection — begin to take their toll on the relationship. As well as on their respective psyches.
Over the course of the totally binge-worthy series, we experience Marianne and Connell’s stormy on-again, off-again relationship through breakups, misunderstandings, dysfunctional relationships with others, so palpably as to find ourselves practically praying silently that these two will finally make it back to each other and claim the happily-ever-after they so richly deserve.
Along the way, of course, it’s an emotional nail-biter, as Normal People is very much a story about growing up in a confusing, modern world.
Based on the international bestseller by Sally Rooney, and beautifully adapted for the screen by directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, Normal People is a rarity among young romance stories. This is a show that completely respects its two leads, treating them intelligently on every level, allowing them the long moments in which to absorb/reflect the social, sexual, and searingly honest emotions with which their characters struggle. To be clear: the frank honesty of the romantic tension in their dynamic makes for explicit sexual content in the show, which may strike us as jarring at first but soon becomes as natural as any other part of Marianne and Connell’s journey, both together and apart.
I was hooked from the very first scene of Normal People, but there’s one scene in the first episode — with no dialogue at all — which captured my heart in its simplicity. It’s a rugby game at school which Marianne attends — sitting by herself of course, as she’s very much an intellectual loner among her classmates. Connell — the popular, good guy star athlete — is playing brilliantly. He has no idea she’s there, yet he’s the reason she’s sitting in the bleachers. As she watches him intently, smiling, her face is a palette of innocent longing for the beauty she sees in him. It’s a powerful and translucent moment that sears Marianne in your heart, and you find yourself instantly protective of this girl. And over the course of the next 12 episodes, you (gratefully) discover that Connell, too, will come to see himself in that role.
But as the best love stories teach us, that protection is very much a mutual dance. The very last scene of Normal People is hard to watch, yet so filled with hope and promise, that once again you’ll find yourself saying a quiet prayer for their future.
Normal People is presently streaming on Hulu.
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