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Hulu’s Normal People plays like a highbrow prestige teen soap

That’s a good thing.

A young man and woman sit next to each other, gazing at each other, under red lighting.
Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell in Hulu’s Normal People.
Courtesy of Hulu
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Normal People, a 12-episode adaptation of “great millennial authorSally Rooney’s 2019 book, which premieres April 29 on Hulu, isn’t quite as good as the book. But it might be more fun. And under the circumstances, that’s probably for the best.

Like its source material, Hulu’s Normal People deals with the romantic tribulations of two Irish teenagers, Marianne and Connell, as they get together and break up repeatedly over the course of their last year of high school and through four years of college. Marianne and Connell sincerely care for each other; they also hurt each other immensely. Both show and book are primarily concerned with how the power dynamic between them shifts and evolves with their relationship.

What’s miraculous about Rooney’s novel, though, is that it balances a clear-eyed analysis of power in Marianne and Connell’s love story with a genuine romantic tenderness that’s almost old-fashioned in its sincerity. Rooney is the credited writer on all 12 episodes of the show (sharing a co-writing credit with Alice Birch on 10 of them, with Lenny Abrahamson directing the first six and Hettie Macdonald directing the back half). But somehow, when the TV show attempts the same balancing act, it stumbles ever so slightly.

Rooney’s novel takes place firmly inside of its characters’ heads, to the point that the interiority feels overwhelming as you read. You’re trapped between the pages with these two neurotic, self-loathing people, and the only escape you’re offered is the possibility that their love might bring them to some sort of transcendent redemption. But in the TV show, we don’t become the protagonists: we watch them. And somehow, that shift in point of view has left Marianne and Connell’s love story looking just a little more conventional than it does in the book, where we first met them.

So by the time the pair has tragically broken up because of a misunderstanding, the camera lingering on their beautiful, young, tear-stained faces while sad acoustic music plays in the background, the whole show has begun to feel bizarrely like a very well-crafted version of a earnest teen soap opera. There’s even a makeover scene.

Which is not to say I rolled my eyes at all the tears and angst. I had the opposite reaction. I sat on the edge of my seat and wished with avid intensity for quarantine popcorn. Turns out it’s fantastic to watch beautiful adults pretending to be teenagers with romantic drama.

Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, the popular kid and the geek

A young man and woman stand outdoors, wearing matching school uniforms, facing each other and standing very close
Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell in Hulu’s Normal People.
Courtesy of Hulu

The original sin of Connell and Marianne’s relationship is this: Connell (Paul Mescal) is popular with the other students at their tiny, small-town high school, while Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is not. Moreover, Connell craves the approval of their peers, while Marianne does not particularly care what other people think of her.

When the pair begins hooking up, Marianne suggests they could keep their relationship a secret, and Connell jumps on the offer with humiliating alacrity. And when the big spring dance rolls around, he invites the popular blonde who’s been chasing him rather than Marianne. She responds by dropping him, and they don’t see each other again until college.

By then, four episodes into the 12-episode season, their social positions have flipped. Both of them have always been smart, but Marianne is smart in a brash, extroverted way that her high school classmates found snobby but her fellow Trinity College classmates admire and respect. Marianne is also rich, and happy to invite her friends to party at her family’s chic Dublin townhouse or rambling Italian villa.

“Classic me,” she remarks to Connell, upon meeting him again. “I went off to college and got pretty.” She looks exactly the same as she always has, but her context has changed. What coded as condescending and sloppy in their small town looks elegant and literary at Trinity. Marianne is flourishing.

Connell, however, is taciturn and poor, and he only feels comfortable talking about books and ideas with Marianne. In high school, he skated by on his athletic ability and good nature, but in college, he feels lost. He can’t find a way to talk to these wealthy Trinity students who casually discuss their holidays in Barcelona, and he mostly doesn’t want to. “Is he, like, smart?” one of Marianne’s glamorous new friends asks her, in a tone that suggests he suspects the answer is no.

But despite the reversal in their social positions, Connell and Marianne’s relationship is irrevocably marked by their standing in high school, when they first came together. Marianne always feels herself to be completely under Connell’s power, as though she would do anything for him. And Connell is wracked with guilt, both at the uncomfortable power he knows he holds over Marianne and the knowledge that in high school, he abused that power by keeping their relationship a secret.

Normal People tracks Marianne and Connell’s shifting dynamic primarily through increasingly graphic sex scenes, and mostly, the choice works. This show has probably the best grasp on how to use sex to develop character of any TV series since Outlander; it becomes clear very early on that sex is what Marianne thinks she has to offer in a relationship, because she doesn’t like herself very much and thinks Connell is a better person than she is. And it’s where Connell thinks he can meet Marianne in equal partnership, because he doesn’t like himself very much and thinks Marianne is smarter than he is.

As they attempt to navigate their way through a series of misunderstandings and betrayals, both Marianne and Connell struggle with depression, and here is where the TV show finds the best and the worst of itself. Connell’s depression rings painfully, transparently honest, and there’s a scene in episode 10 where the camera holds Mescal in an unbroken close-up as he slowly unravels Connell’s quiet jock persona, teasing out the anguish lying below it, that is just excruciatingly good.

But when the camera turns to Marianne’s depression, everything turns erotic and romantic in a way that gave me lingering flashbacks to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s “Sexy French Depression” parody. Her depression is signified mostly by shots of Edgar-Jones looking sad and gamine and vaguely like a young Audrey Hepburn, while she gazes downward and the camera focuses in on her eyelashes, and then shots of Marianne disassociating her way through some bondage interludes with a handsome Swedish man. It feels exploitative, in a gross way.

The show starts to click again when Marianne finds her way out of the worst of her depression and back onto the screen with Connell. Edgar-Jones and Mescal have a giddy, euphoric chemistry that seems to surprise them every time they share a scene together. It goes a long way toward selling the audience on the idea that Connell and Marianne have no choice but to keep finding their way back to each other for four years, through repeated breakup and reconciliation scenes.

In the end, Normal People is not the second coming of Dawson’s Creek, the forever pinnacle of cheesy-slash-earnest teen dramas. It’s crafted with much more care and artistry than its WB forebears, and it’s sadder and darker than they were too. But there’s a sweet, silly soapiness to this show that makes it all the more appealing to get lost in.

I love Rooney’s Normal People novel. I think it’s one of the greatest books of the new century. But I don’t particularly want to read it right now. I don’t think that a global emergency is the moment in time in which I’d like to lock myself into the mind of someone smarter and more self-loathing than me.

Hulu’s Normal People never threatens to do anything nearly so unsettling to its viewers. What it offers me instead is the chance to watch beautiful people who are slightly less smart than I am gazing at each other with angst and longing across a series of lovely European vistas, and then also sometimes kissing. And that’s a world I’m more than willing to lock myself into right now.

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