The sizzling chemistry of Normal People
Despite what writers would have you think, love stories are not often epic. 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.
Normal People, which debuts for U.S. audiences on Hulu on Wednesday, 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). Rooney herself wrote the script, with the first six half-hour episodes directed by Room filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson and the final six directed by Hettie Macdonald, who is best known in certain circles for helming the Hugo Award-winning Doctor Who episode "Blink."
The most delicate element of all, though, came down to the show's casting. Normal People follows four years in the lives of Marianne and Connell, whose on-again-off-again romance is the center of the story. Their relationship begins when the two are teenagers living in a backwater town in Sligo, Ireland: Connell is the popular boy whose mother works as a cleaning lady for Marianne's mother, while Marianne is the uptight loner who's bullied by Connell's friends for being "ugly." The pair rendezvous in secret as to not rouse the jeers of Connell's friends, an arrangement that ends exactly as one might expect: heartbreak. Over the ensuing years, the pair continue to collide and break apart again, unable to either stay together or escape each other's orbits.
Of course, a romance of such magnetism requires bucketfuls of chemistry on screen, no easy ask even for veteran actors. But relative newcomers Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, as Marianne and Connell respectively, more than deliver. The romantic tension between the two is the most sizzling example I can think of on screen since Fleabag and the Hot Priest. When Marianne talks at one point about believing she can hear Connell's thoughts, it feels like more than just a romantic cliche; the actors likewise seem to perfectly anticipate one another, bending toward each other in some imperceptible way, seeking each other across rooms and camera frames. Mescal is brilliant as Connell, with awkward, youthful blushes and embarrassed eye contact, never quite managing to get out what it is he really wants to say. Edgar-Jones, too, is a natural talent, with a piercing defiance to her performance that doesn't cover up her character's underlying sensitivity, either.
It can't be avoided saying, either, that Connell and Marianne have a lot of sex. But Normal People brings down to Earth what might have been an opportunity for gratuitous montages of passion in some other show. There is no mythical preexisting understanding of one another's desires here; in a scene that is being lauded by critics for properly showing consent, Connell reminds Marianne "if you want me to stop or anything, we can obviously stop" (at a later point in the show, Marianne exercises this right; Normal People doesn't just pay lip service to consent, but shows what it actually looks like in practice too). Additionally, Normal People's intimate scenes are not the sweat-drenched, perfectly-lit romps we're used to seeing in our entertainment: there's an awkward interruption when a condom has to be fetched, or Marianne gets briefly tangled in her bra. It's more than just fantasy and wish fulfillment; it's emotionally intimate. "I felt like I was intruding by watching," admitted sex and relationship coach Duchess Iphie to The Daily Mail.
There is a point late in Normal People where this push-and-pull of the normal and the singular all comes together. Connell and Marianne reflect on the way their relationship once seemed like something scandalous and essential to hide from others. As it turns out, rather, no one really cares that the two of them are together. That's so often the case, that the intensity of our own relationships can become so magnified that it obscures the fact that people have fallen in love, with similar trials and tribulations, forever.
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.
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