Why Teen Drama Fans Should Watch "Normal People"
Not since the core teen dramas has a show affected me as deeply as “Normal People” did this year.
I’m talking electric chemistry and soul-crushing heartbreak, both of which I felt deep in my core.
“Normal People” has a fairly typical teen drama premise: an on-and-off couple comes of age in high school and college. But unlike most teen dramas, the focus isn’t on an ensemble but just these two characters, Marianne and Connell, apart and together, together and apart.
The story is set in Ireland and follows these classmates from senior year of high school to senior year of college. Whereas many teen dramas are called out for their heightened sense of reality, this one just felt... real. Over the course of 12 episodes that ran roughly 30 minutes apiece, I viscerally felt the highs and lows of not only Marianne and Connell’s romance, but their own personal journeys.
Without spoiling too much, Marianne and Connell are both damaged in different ways and are only whole together. All Marianne wants is to be loved and liked. She is verbally abused at home by her brother and receives no maternal warmth from her mother. The kids at school mock her. She’s led to believe she’s worthless and unlovable. Meanwhile, all Connell wants is to belong. He is a poor kid with a single mom who cleans the home of one of the town’s richest families. He feels lucky to be in with the popular crowd and doesn’t want to risk losing that social status.
As you might expect, it turns out they are the only one who sees the other for who they really are and loves and accepts one another for who they really are. Their physical bond is intoxicating and their mental bond goes beyond ordinary connection. This repeatedly comes up throughout the series, with lines like, “It’s not like this with other people.” Marianne and Connell are broken mentally, but when they are intertwined physically, they’re whole. Their physical interaction is a manifestation of their emotional connection.
On top of the raw, emotional performances by Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne) and Paul Mescal (Connell) being critically acclaimed (Mescal even scored an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie), the show received well-deserved praise for its handling of sexuality and consent. Both stars appear completely naked in the show and some detractors have accused the characters’ sex scenes of being pornographic. On the contrary, an on-set intimacy coordinator helped ensure not only the safety and comfort of Edgar-Jones and Mescal, but also realistic portrayals of sexual interaction.
There is also an important exchange about consent in the second episode, all of which prompted positive reviews with headlines like, “How ‘Normal People’ Did Sex Scenes So Good” (Vulture), “How ‘Normal People,’ the Sexiest Show on TV, Gets the Details Right” (GQ), “How ‘Normal People’ Made Sex You Actually Believe” (Elle), “BBC’s ‘Normal People’ Powerfully Portrays Sexual Consent in a Way We’ve Never Seen Before” (Glamour UK), “‘Normal People’: We Need to Discuss This BBC Show’s Portrayal of Sex and Consent” (Stylist), and “The ‘Normal People’ Adaptation Shows Virginity and Consent in a Way I’ve Never Seen on TV” (Popsugar).
Additionally, the series’ focus on mental health is not to be overlooked. Just consider these headlines: “Hulu’s ‘Normal People’ Knows Mental Health, Like Love, is Complicated. And That’s OK” (NBC News), “Mental Health Awards: Why ‘Normal People’s Depiction of Depression is So Ground-Breaking” (Stylist), “How Normal People Highlights the Importance of Speaking About Men’s Mental Health” (Evening Standard), and “‘Normal People’s Depiction Of Depression Is Just As Striking As Its Sex Scenes” (Bustle). There is no question that Mescal’s acting in this storyline, which figures heavily in episode 10, is what led to his Emmy nomination.
Obviously, given my passion for the teen drama genre, I love coming-of-age stories. But more specifically, I love relationship stories filled with angst and yearning. They just break your heart and you want them to keep breaking it. This is “Normal People.” There were also aspects I personally connected to that I won’t detail here, but they fueled an emotional reaction in me that led me to binge the series three times in roughly two months and obsessively watch fan-made videos on YouTube (…and cry lots and lots).
I also read the book on which the series is based, but didn’t find myself nearly as moved. Though the novel, by Sally Rooney, was a bestseller and received multiple honors, the rather plain way in which it’s written didn’t stir the same feelings in me that the visual adaptation did. My only quibble with the series might be the accents — it was about two episodes before I realized it was “Connell” and not “Connor” — but this speaks more to my own unfamiliarity with Irish dialogue than it does any failure on the part of the show. Do not let a fear of brogues keep you away; you can always watch with subtitles to ensure you catch every meaningful word.
Speaking of meaningful, teen drama fans will especially appreciate a sequence set to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” the same song that soared in popularity after being used to great effect in the season 2 finale of “The O.C.” Still, if you need further proof of the greatness of “Normal People,” last week TVLine named the show the best drama series of 2020, writing:
“There was nothing particularly flashy or innovative about Hulu’s sweepingly romantic miniseries: just the story of young Connell and Marianne, falling in and out of love over the course of several years. And yet it’s a testament to the incredible skill and care put in here that such a simple story packed such a massive emotional wallop. The tone was stunningly intimate and naturalistic — it felt as if we were eavesdropping on hushed private conversations — and the undeniable chemistry between stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones made us yearn and pine right along with them. Simply put, it’s one of the most beautifully rendered depictions of young love ever committed to film… and more than worthy of the top spot on this list.”
I rest my case. And while I truly believe the trailer doesn’t do the series justice (it makes the show come off more like an erotic thriller when it’s a full-on romantic, emotional drama), I’ve included it below. (There are also three scenes in the trailer that aren’t actually in the series.) Watch — and then start streaming “Normal People” on Hulu today.
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More recent evidence of the show's greatness!