‘Normal People’ TV Mini Series Review: Sally Rooney’s Novel About Human Connection Stuns on the Small-Screen as it Does on Paper
If I had no idea who Sally Rooney was and you told me that she’s published two best-selling novels and can now add an adapted series to her resume, I’m not gonna lie, I’d be salty AF. If you added that she’s not even thirty yet, I might actually slap you and tell you to stop lying. Then I’d walk away crying.
This isn’t an alternate universe, though. I know perfectly well who Rooney is, having devoured her two novels, Normal People and Conversations with Friends, within a week of each other, earlier this year, having gone through the shock that she’s unimaginably successful before thirty, questioned my own life choices (how much TikTok is too much TikTok, though?), then patiently waited four months for the Normal People series to hit TV. Once it did, like a good Stan, I finished it in four days.
Though it may be layered with themes of socioeconomics, bullying, domestic abuse, sexual consent, and depression and anxiety, Normal People is, more than anything, a story about human connection. While one may argue that that’s essentially what every single story on the face of the earth is about, what makes Normal People stand out is the way Rooney gets into the character’s minds in a microscopic way, bringing to light parts of the human psyche that often remain overshadowed.
The story itself is one as old as time: Boy and girl of different societal backgrounds meet and must endure the obstacles their differences create to find a common understanding so they can be together. For these reasons, in part, Rooney’s work has been likened to Jane Austen’s. However, in this modern scenario, our protagonists live in Sligo, Ireland, there’s liberal use of modern technology, visits to bars and night clubs, and nudity that would leave even the feisty and outspoken Elizabeth Bennet dumbfound.
Marianne Sheridan, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, is rich and unattractive (perhaps the only inaccuracy in this show because Edgar-Jones is stunning in every scene). For these reasons, she’s unpopular in school and is often teased and bullied by her schoolmates. Though she, by no means, takes any of it lying down, often using her quick wit and general disdain to fire clap blacks that leave her mates reaching for the aloe vera.
Connell Waldron, played by the easy-on-the-eyes Paul Mescal, comes from a middle-class family. He’s the child of a single mother, the result of a teen pregnancy, which might allude as to why she currently works as a housekeeper, namely at Marianne’s mansion. Though Connell’s heart is in the right place, he generally lacks a spine, often failing to speak up when Marianne is being verbally abused by his friends. Unlike Marianne, he worries about being well-liked and accepted, and rarely speaks up or shares any assertive opinions. In spite of their differences, Marianne and Connell answer the call of this instinctual, gravitational pull between them, and they begin, what they believe to be, a secret romantic affair.
The story follows these two as their relationship ebbs and flows through the years, out of high school and into Dublin’s Trinity College, as they come together and fall apart, experience growth, come together again, and fall apart again. Primarily, we see that the connection between these two is, as the story proceeds to show, not one that can easily be broken or interfered with by any worldly means. The instant Connell and Marianne are in each other’s lives, whether they’re aware of it or not, they are all in.
It is, essentially, the most important aspect of Normal People, and Edgar-Jones and Mescal step into every scene with a chemistry that will leave you feeling like an intruder as we watch not just their steamy love scenes but other scenes of intimacy as well.
The episode when Connell starts going to therapy after his friend Rob is found dead from suicide, is particularly poignant. In today’s society, where one of the main causes of death in men is suicide, Mescal’s portrayal of a man going through depression, struggling to express himself, and seeking professional help, feels like an imperative message in today’s times. Subsequently, one of the most tender scenes depicting this otherwordly connection between Connell and Marianne is when Marianne is in Sweden as part of Trinity’s Erasmus program, Skype chatting with Connell. She senses, through sheer intuition, that Connell is struggling to ease his anxiety and depression enough to fall asleep. Marianne reassures him by suggesting he leave Skype on. Connell, with a new sense of security, at last, dozes off while Marianne works through the night, now and then checking in on her friend through her laptop screen.
One concern I had about the series was the way the showrunners would handle the love scenes between the two main characters. The novel is laden with moments where Connell and Marianne’s connection is depicted, and arguably, better understood, through sex. These scenes could easily be portrayed as gratuitous, but by the careful eye of the directors, the love scenes maintain that grace that keeps them on this side of the porn line. Every time Connell and Marianne are physically intimate, we understand, in the books as well as on the screen, that there is something unspoken there between them, an understanding beyond human comprehension, an unrestrained and equal allowing of expression.
The series, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, manages what few TV adaptations have managed to do: to marry what we see and feel in our minds when we read a book to what we sense with our eyes and ears when watching it on the screen. The screen version of Normal People preserves that connection to the story that reading the book creates, maintaining its true spirit so that it may as well be a projection from our minds unto the screen.
The only thing I missed while watching the series was Rooney’s particular style of narration, that way she has of depicting with precision all the unspoken thoughts and feelings that are passing through Connell and Marianne. This obviously couldn’t be done in the series unless they implemented a narrator which would’ve taken away from the muted turmoil that’s so important to the story. Still, Edgar-Jones and Mescal speak multitudes with their silence as much as they do with their dialogues, understanding the importance of character nuance in this story.
Normal People may not have the most original plot, and superficially, the TV series may come across as redundant, retelling a story that’s been making the rounds since the dawning of mankind. But what makes this story special is what it manages to achieve through Rooney’s particular vision of the world. With her talent for pinpointing all that is so often left unsaid, the ways in which we so often and unnecessarily complicate our own lives, we connect to the story and its characters in ways other character-driven novels fail to do.
Edgar-Jones and Mescal continue Rooney’s legacy on the screen, enlightening us about our human need for connection, that inherent need buried inside all of us to find that one person who can understand us and not judge us; who can be there for us at different stages of life, regardless of where we stand with each other; who can always have our best interests in mind; who pushes us to challenge ourselves and be our best selves; who can see us and see through us; who sometimes knows us better than we know ourselves.