No matter the destination, there are inevitabilities built into “boy meets girl” stories. They meet, they flirt, they kiss, they fight, they fall in love. But the best of them dig past the surface to find more specific truths; they find a vein and let the blood flow.
“Normal People,” as originally written by Sally Rooney, is one of those stories. The 2018 novel stepped inside the heads of Marianne and Connell, two Irish teenagers who try, and fail, and try, and fail, to resist the magnetic pull between them. On the face of it, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the narrative itself. Marianne’s the sharp as glass rich girl; Connell’s the popular rugby star who’s secretly just as smart as she is. (Or, according to Marianne, even smarter.) And yet, the way in which Rooney expresses Marianne and Connell’s innermost thoughts, passions and insecurities made “Normal People” an extraordinary portrait of two people in and out of the most defining relationship of their lives.
Now, Hulu and BBC Three have turned “Normal People” into a TV series that, over 12 bruising episodes, slowly but surely burrows into Marianne and Connell’s brains without the scalpel of Rooney’s prose to guide its audience there. At first, however, watching Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) trade glances and steal moments of affection through the myopic haze of high school hierarchies and an overwrought soundtrack feels all too typical. Having read the book, I kept wondering why Rooney and writers Alice Birch (“Lady Macbeth”) and Mark O’Rowe didn’t choose to skip around in the timeline to show us more of Marianne and Connell’s intertwined future and how much they come to mean to each other so that their humbler beginnings might feel more grand. However good the acting is (and it is great — more on that later), it’s inevitably harder to parse the nuances of their interactions without the benefit of Rooney’s descriptions of their psyches during them. The same holds perhaps doubly true for how Marianne and Connell can’t seem to ever get on the same page without breaking apart yet again; it can be far less frustrating to read their internal justifications for not being together than to see it play out, over and over again, without more explicit reasoning.
Still: as the linear storytelling unfurls, and even without being able to hear their inner monologues, the unsparing scripts strip layer after layer of Marianne and Connell’s veneers, peeling back their protective fronts as methodically as they do themselves. Neither Marianne nor Connell are particularly verbose, but their shorthand with each other becomes a language all its own. With every episode, you learn to read their moods and micro-expressions alongside them.
The story would have a much harder time translating to the screen without alternately intimate and stark directing from Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”) and Hettie Macdonald (“Howard’s End”) and visceral acting from its core duo. Together, Edgar-Jones and Mescal quickly click into Marianne and Connell’s unspoken bond of shared disquiet, amplified by all the other people around them who, they believe, couldn’t ever understand. When they do sporadically break their sparse interactions to come fully crashing together, whether during honest conversations or sex neither could imagine having with anyone else, it’s hard to look away.
And yet: even though “Normal People” is ostensibly about a couple, Edgar-Jones and Mescal are at their best when Marianne and Connell are separated. Edgar-Jones makes every sideways look count — a skill that comes in handy, given how Marianne tends to shift or otherwise disappear when she’s with a man. Mescal, given the explicitly taciturn character of Connell, is astonishingly good at making clear exactly what he’s thinking, even if Connell himself doesn’t realize what he’s telegraphing. And when Connell cracks, watching Mescal lean in to the character’s reluctant feelings and guiding him through to the other side, is breathtaking.
With its trifecta of elegant writing, directing, and acting, Hulu’s “Normal People” is just as bleak and uncompromising as Rooney’s novel — a feat, and one that takes several episodes to fully absorb. In fact, it took me until about halfway through to understand just how much it was affecting me; when I finally stepped away, it took a couple hours to blink away the weighty cloud of malaise the show inspired. (When the show does allow some moments of joy, they’re extremely welcome to the point of feeling downright luxurious.) As Marianne and Connell’s relationship grows deeper, “Normal People” becomes as immersive as the book that inspired it, making you both crave and dread knowing — or perhaps more accurately, experiencing — what happens next.
All 12 episodes of “Normal People” premiere Wednesday, April 29 on Hulu.