Every once in a while, there arrives a piece of entertainment—be it a film or TV show—that makes you stop and think, “Something about this isn’t right.” On the surface, all the pieces seemed to be set in place and arranged in a way that anyone not looking closely could dismiss as passable or even enjoy. But, somewhere in the back of your mind, a worrying sensation will not let you move past the questions circling in your head.
In this case, the piece of inadvertently unsettling entertainment in question is “Normal People,” the 12-part Hulu/BBC collaboration based on Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name. The miniseries centers around the romantic escapades of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), as the two grow from awkward teens involved in a high school fling into confused young adults who constantly pop in and out of each other’s romantic lives. As years tick away and passions reappear and vanish seemingly at random, Marianne and Connell confront their faults in order to attain what they’ve always desired—a life spent with each other.
Above anything else, the standout achievement of “Normal People” is the chemistry between Marianne and Connell, which crackles with a surefire sense of chemistry due to fantastic performances by Edgar-Jones and Mescal; more than any other component of the miniseries, the singular reason to watch “Normal People” would be to appreciate their immense talent. The pair brings an unforgettable presence to every interaction, and many of the most effective moments of the show—the best of which occur during Connell and Marianne’s time at Trinity College in Dublin—do not involve words at all, but rely exclusively on glances, broken sentences and pained smiles, which adds to the ever-present, unexpressed tension that continually coils and fluctuates for the duration of the season.
Likewise, the show’s directorial vision—shoutout to the split efforts of Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”) and Hettie Macdonald—combined with the visual aesthetics of Suzie Lavelle and Kate McCullough’s cinematography create an ambiance balanced between summertime daydreams and rainy-day fantasies. When merged with the subtle mastery of Edgar-Jones and Mescal’s performances, on a stylistic level, “Normal People” disposes entirely of tropes. At its best moments, the show is cold, quiet and awkward, implementing gaps of silence that speak volumes as complementary ethereal visuals exhibit the unspoken passions looming in the air.
Apart from that, “Normal People” is, albeit unintentionally, one of the most problematic romantic dramas to arrive on the scene in quite some time. As opposed to other contemporary movies and shows criticized for their depictions of violence or political commentary, the moral dilemmas of “Normal People” stem from far more affective roots, resulting in a confused, hypocritical idolization of desire. To be explicitly clear, “Normal People” is not romantic; this is not a commentary on the show’s nontraditional attempts to subvert the tropes of the genre, but rather to assert that even taking those elements into account, there’s very little romance to be found in “Normal People.”
In fact, the miniseries supplants love with a firsthand display of selfishness, lust at its least controlled and insatiable codependence. As a character, Connell is indecisive and self-absorbed; the focal crux that sinks his initial relationship with Marianne derives from his desire to keep their intimacy a secret, although he never once opposes to sleeping with her whenever it suits him. Connell’s unquenchable need for approval, which stems from his lack of identity, never changes. Shockingly, this unashamed stagnation—the unwillingness or inability to alter one’s behavior—contaminates every character in “Normal People,” but none more so than Connell, who, for all intents and purposes, is the show’s unintentional antagonist.
Similarly, Marianne, who is plagued by steadily worsening self-image issues—which never improves by the show’s conclusion—is no better. In a shockingly dated showcase of character development, the only times that Marianne is displayed with any inkling of confidence and self-assurance is when she is confined within a relationship. To make matters worse, her relationship with Connell, which the show attempts to portray as more positive than the BDSM-centric trysts she engages in, functions as the principal factor preventing her from excelling in her career and living a life free of the psychological torment dished out by Connell over the span of years. By the end, Marianne is practically a Stockholm-Syndrome-afflicted shell of her former self, broken mentally and shattered emotionally.
If “Normal People” seeks to impart a lesson to its audience, it is this: Always forgive people who never change. The aforementioned cycle of Connell’s indecisiveness affecting the vulnerable Marianne spirals on for close to a decade. Presumably, the average viewer will be clued into the show’s intentions relatively early in the show’s duration, so sitting courtside to watch the couple self-destruct over and over is entirely unpleasant. Wonderful performances aside, there is not enough depth provided to either character that explains why Connell insists on continually ruining his chances with Marianne or why she would even tolerate his actions for so long. Generally speaking, the characters, as outlined on the page, are distinctly plain and painted with broad strokes, which serves to highlight Edgar-Jones and Mescal’s acting ability but demonstrates that their talents are in service of a substandard product.
Why do Marianne and Connell want to be together so badly? Unfortunately, the audience never discovers the answer to this question. Apart from the repeated refrain of, “It’s not like this with other people,” which almost always precedes or follows a sex scene, “Normal People” does not provide an answer. As such, viewers are treated to 12 episodes of Marianne and Connell wrecking their own lives as well as the lives of others—some subjectively flawed, others objectively harmless—for the sake of hot sex. Beneath the surface, the discussion of class and power dynamics that Rooney’s novel champions are primarily restricted to surface-level inspections and open-ended hypotheticals; or perhaps their restraint works to their disadvantage. In keeping with the series’ habitual pattern of skirting around substance, any-and-all psychological implications are rarely debated or depicted on screen—both trauma and mental health are mentioned and glossed over respectively.
If the purpose of “Normal People” was to depict the consequences of selfishness and the emptiness of lust—envision Lars von Trier by way of Nicholas Sparks—the show might have struck gold. Instead, the miniseries abides by the trite rules of the game that have plagued the romantic genre for decades; unrealistic miscommunication and cliché archetypes rank as two standout grievances, but every lapse into conventionality comes across as even more defective due to show’s adherence to a vérité visual aesthetic and the creators’ self-assured belief that the miniseries is portraying romance as it exists outside of television. From a creative or topical standpoint equally, it is counterintuitive to pursue naturalism if the end goal is idealistic resolutions devoid of consequences; the two components simply do not mix. If you strip away the stylistic garnish and the talents of two immensely gifted actors, the blatant shallowness of “Normal People” shines brightly, and after you glimpse it once, its blemishes become impossible to ignore.
In summary, “Normal People” is not about normal people. Yes, everyday people are imperfect, and our personal insecurities influence every facet of our lives and relationships, oftentimes unintentionally. Still, the majority of “normal” people learn from their mistakes and attempt to avoid falling into the same traps in the future, and if they do not, consequences await. But in order for “Normal People” to warrant any recommendation, the show desperately needed a resolve. As it stands, the show tries to invest in too many avenues; it’s too thin to be a character study, too misguided to be romantic and too fantasy-prone to provide a realistic conclusion with “normal” consequences. When the show does not reward bad behavior, it either ignores or reshapes the narrative.
“Normal People” does not need—or necessitate—a Hollywood ending, but it requires a thesis statement or an affirmative declaration that either affirms the actions of its lead characters or condemns their exploits. After hours of watching Marianne and Connell disintegrate, the payoff is simply not worth the wait and further exemplifies a disconnect between the show’s intentions and execution. If “Normal People” is considered to be an authentic portrait of romance in its current state, we should all be very, very worried. [C-]