Last week a friend texted our WhatsApp group: “Who is watching Normal People? It’s very hot.”
As it turns out, many people are watching the new BBC and Hulu series, an adaptation of Irish writer Sally Rooney’s wildly successful 2018 novel of the same name.
The 12 episode series, available to stream on Stan, gave BBC3 its best week ever as the show was downloaded 16.2 million times on the BBC’s iPlayer.
“This is such a phenomenon,” says Jason Di Rosso, host of RN’s The Screen Show.
So who are these Normal People?
Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is a brilliant, spikey, wealthy, loner in her final year of high school in Sligo, a small town on Ireland’s east coast.
Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) is the star of their school’s football team, a popular but shy boy who secretly loves to read and write and whose mother Lorraine (Sarah Greene) cleans Marianne’s family mansion.
Marianne is bullied by her peers (who she treats with disdain) but soon the chemistry between Marianne and Connell bubbles over and they begin secretly sleeping together.
The series traces the two through the throes of first love and onto university as the lovers are magnetically drawn together only to keep falling apart.
Why are millions watching this?
“The single greatest reason why I think people are responding so intensely to Normal People is the quality of the love story,” says Sam Strong, theatre director and chair of Melbourne Fringe Festival.
“What this work captures is the sort of halting beauty of first love, in all of its intensity, all of its uncertainty, and it’s something authentic and recognisable,” Strong says.
Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen writes that the series “understands that our teenage feelings never actually leave us. They transform and sour, recede and resurface. But those feelings are our companions, the foundations of our adult emotional lives”.
The series’ potency hinges on Edgar-Jones and Mescal’s performances.
“I think both of them are so great as actors — they just sort of embody, in the way they look at each other, these confused feelings and this storm of emotions,” Di Rosso says.
Strong agrees: “The performances are some of the best I’ve seen on screen.”
He also points to the effectiveness of both the production design (Lucy Van Lonkhuyen) and the cinematography (Suzie Lavelle and Hettie Macdonald) in bringing the viewer so deeply into the experiences of the central couple.
While Strong considers the series to be “exquisite” he also recognises Normal People can be a polarising watch.
“It’s a series of very first-world problems that it depicts … and I appreciate that some people might find the narrative speed a little bit of a slow burn, but I think that misses the point,” Strong says.
So what about this sex?
Sex is central to the original book — the couple are able to communicate more effectively in bed than anywhere else — and in adapting the series, Rooney (who co-wrote the first five episodes) and her collaborators Alice Birch (a British playwright-turned-screenwriter who is best known for her work on HBO’s Succession), Mark O’Rowe (an Irish playwright-turned-screenwriter) and directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Howard’s End), haven’t shied away from it.
The sex scenes — which were coordinated by an intimacy coordinator — have generated some controversy in Ireland; callers to Irish national broadcaster RTE Radio were appalled by the nudity and sexual content, one asking: “Is the national broadcaster promoting fornication?”
But many have praised the series’ frank depictions of sex.
“This is a very sweaty and heady heterosexual love affair, and I think viscerally depicted,” Di Rosso says.
“The lovemaking is extremely physical and very real, and often without music and without those sorts of additions that often smooth over some of the awkwardness of it.”
Why does Connell’s necklace have its own Instagram account?
“Connell is the hunk of the book and the TV series … an absolute sort of dream boy, I imagine for many women,” Kate Jinx, a programmer for Melbourne International Film Festival and Sydney’s Golden Age cinema, told The Screen Show.
Some have zeroed in on the eroticism of Connell’s silver chain; an Instagram account in its honour now has over 76,000 followers.
Jinx has some reservations about the characterisation of Normal People’s male lead.
“He’s the brooding, silent type who plays football, he hangs out with the lads, and yet he’s the most intelligent person Marianne has ever met … he’s great in the sack,” Jinx says before listing off more dreamy qualities.
“It’s just a little bit too much.”
Still, she admires Mescal’s performance: “He brings this incredible physicality to what is a very fantastical character.”
OK, sexy heartbroken teens, but is there more to it?
Rooney is a lifelong Marxist, and this show goes beyond sex and love to explore trauma, abuse and class.
“It depicts the vulnerabilities of this hunky guy Connell who has all … the self-doubts that are often ascribed to working-class people,” Di Rosso says.
While Marianne is the outcast in their high school, once they go off to college the power dynamics shift and she seems to easily slot into the intelligentsia of Trinity College, swanning around in boho chic ensembles, and cooking effortlessly sophisticated meals for pals in the unrealistically photo-ready kitchen of her family-owned house in Dublin.
Meanwhile Connell, who has all the smarts to make it at college but no means to finance it, is a bit discombobulated by Trinity.
“It’s not just a love story, it’s accessing a broader theme of belonging, of people finding out where they fit, not just with other people, but in the world more generally,” Strong says.
“The work’s undercurrent of class and class difference makes it much more complex.”
How does it compare to the book?
Rooney’s novel has had near-universal acclaim; it was long-listed for the 2018 Booker Prize (Rooney was just 27 years old at the time) and The Guardian ranked it number 25 on its 100 best books of the 21st century.
“There were a few more things about class in the book than in the TV series that I was a little disappointed that they weren’t included,” says Jinx, who is one of the rare people who didn’t fall hard for the book.
Jinx did however appreciate how the screen adaptation does away with the novel’s flashback structure and follows a more conventional linear narrative.
Strong was among the novel’s adherents, describing it as a “Chekhovian drama of pain, yearning and what can’t be expressed” — although he admits to some “40-something impatience with the emotional immaturity of the characters”.
“But any quibbles and mild reservations or impatience with the novel sort of melted away when I watched the screen adaptation,” Strong says.
He says the Normal People team have achieved what he describes as “the holy grail of adaptation”: “to create something using source material that is not just a work of art in its own right, but that is arguably an even greater work of art than the source material.”
I’ve cried a lot, what do I do now?
Rooney’s debut novel Conversations With Friends was also a literary sensation, and the two novels — both intimate, heartbreaking, sex-filled stories of people in their 20s fumbling through life — cemented her reputation as the “first great millennial novelist”.
So get your hands on either novel, while you wait for the screen adaptation of Conversations With Friends — which is also in production.
If you’re looking for similar vibes, some have compared the show to the queer romance film Call Me By Your Name — but Australian director Sophie Hyde’s 2019 film Animals (based on the novel by Emma Jane Unsworth), in which Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat play two friends drinking and sleeping their way through Dublin, might be a more apt comparison.
“It’s sort of set amongst a similarly precocious circle of talented young people who read poetry and criticise each other’s work,” Di Rosso says.
Jinx says: “I loved Animals … It was a story of friendship more than anything, and it was sort of about love and first love and how do you change yourself when you’re in a relationship.”
Normal People is now streaming on Stan