‘NORMAL People’ is the kind of show which you immediately want to endorse to your more intelligent friends to watch pronto. The dumber ones won’t appreciate it as the sharper ones. Based on the novel by Sally Rooney, it’s a love story, all right, but actually not your usual escapist teen romance as it’s a very intimate examination of the floating off and on relationship between two people in love.
The wonderful trifecta of great writing, astute direction and superb acting, all full of incredible nuances, make this 12-episode series of half an hour each, truly a delight to watch. We were in tears during several scenes, not because it’s a tearjerker, but simply because the execution of some scenes is so well done.
They don’t spell it out for you. You have to watch closely to figure out what’s going on with the characters who are both complex and vulnerable as we join them in their angst-filled journey from high school to college. The material is delicately treated with great care, with so many quiet moments showing the leads as they make mistakes, have sex, mature, split up, make up and change over the years.
Set in Ireland, it starts in the rural town of Sligo where Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) are classmates. Marianne is the outcast in their class. A loner, she’s very bright and she knows it. She’s outspoken and not above answering back to their teachers arrogantly, also openly insulting her classmates who make fun of her.
She’s also alone at home. Her mother, a lawyer, is well-off but cold and distant to her. We learn that she used to be the battered wife of her late husband. Her only brother is very hostile to Marianne, obviously resenting her being the academically bright between them.
In contrast, Connell is an athletic jock and also an academic achiever who’s popular in school. He lives with his loving mom, who works a cleaner for Marianne’s family. Although they don’t talk in school, he and Marianne communicate whenever he picks up his mom at the Sheridan home.
Romance eventually blossoms between them but, Paul asks Marianne to keep their relationship a secret as his friends will surely needle him if they’d ever know he’s on with her. They eventually sleep together, with Marianne a virgin, and their unique relationship grows, but in school Connell continues to ignore her even when she’s bullied by his friends.
Though Marianne accepts this arrangement, it creates tension in their very delicate connection with each other. Marianne is hurt when Connell doesn’t invite her to be his partner in their debs (Irish term for school prom) and chooses another girl who he has bedded before.
Connell later regrets it, gets drunk, tries to say sorry to Marianne, but she no longer answers his calls. He ends up walking in the street sobbing, knowing he has lost her for good. Marianne no longer returns to school, but takes up her final exams which you know she’d easily pass since she’s really smart.
They meet again in Trinity College in Dublin. It was Marian who suggested Paul tries it there and he makes it, also taking up her suggested major, English, since he writes well. He tries to look for her inside the campus, but cannot locate her.
That scene where they finally meet again is truly affecting, but Marianne already has a new boyfriend. And their roles have been reversed since Marianne is now the popular one in school while Connell feels that he doesn’t really fit in, even if Marianne’s friends are very nice to him. He finally gets the chance to apologize to her for how he treated her in high school.
She then dumps her boyfriend and reconciles with him. But then, the cycle is repeated and their relationship ends abruptly with the reason not being very clear to Marianne. Connell returns to Sligo when he loses his job as a waiter in a pub.
When he returns to Dublin later, Marianne has a new boyfriend and he eventually finds a new girlfriend. They get to analyze their last breakup and realize it stemmed from a mere misunderstanding. They resolve to become just good friends, aware that the roadblocks in their relationship arise when they’re not able to articulate with each other what they need exactly.
They are both accepted to Trinity’s scholarship program. It’s obvious that they still have intense feelings for each other and their tentative relationship persists until the final episode with its maddeningly uncertain ending. Connell gets a scholarship program in New York so they contemplate what their future might be.
We won’t be surprised then if this would have a second season since the show is a big hit in various countries. The title “Normal People” is very apt as the lead characters are both human and clumsy in messing things up. There are some points when we want tell them to just love each other as it seems so hard for them. But the way their life-changing love unfolds is so affirming, so addicting.
There are many bedscenes, quite graphic, with full frontal nudity, but it’s not there just for eroticism but to show both the physical intimacy and emotionally redemptive connection between the leads who both admit that the fulfillment they get from their sex with each other people is not the same as with other partners.
The show’s success owes a lot to the actors. Much is asked of them, and more is actually given. Both Daisy and Paul have the capability to convey what their characters think and feel when they’re just lost in thought, without uttering a single word. Daisy Edgar-Jones plays the complex Marianne who gets into other unhealthy relationships and enjoys being hurt during sex with so much vulnerability and depth. She knows how to convey effectively that love can be so real it really hurts.
Paul Mescal is not that outstandingly handsome but he has a magnetic presence, showing much respect and tenderness in their first sex scene. Knowing that Marianne is a virgin, he keeps on asking her: “Is that okay?” “Is this what you want?” “ If you want to stop or anything, it won’t be awkward, we can obviously stop.”
Some shows about teenagers having sex can be so off putting, like Netflix’ “Sex Education” and HBO’s “Euphoria”, but this one handles its sex scenes with knowing fondness to impart the lasting bond between the lovers.
Paul also gets to do a number of well-handled crying scenes, but his best one is when he experiences depression after a high school friend commits suicide and he consults a psychologist to help sort out his feelings. His meltdown scene is a true heartbreaker.
He’s also splendid when he confronts Marianne’s abusive brother and warns him that he’d kick his ass if ever he’d hurt her again. He can deliver the most significant lines in the most casual but endearing way, as when he tells Marian, who believes people don’t like her: “You are a good person, and I say that as someone who truly knows you. Just because people treat you badly, and I include myself in that by the way, doesn’t mean you deserve to be treated badly.”