I breezed through the 12 half-hour-long episodes of “Normal People,” the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel that arrives on Hulu on Wednesday. It’s a beautifully done series about love, sex, and class in Ireland that features a pair of indelible lead performances, by Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and newcomer Paul Mescal as Connell. Essentially, we follow the ebbs and flows of Marianne and Paul’s romance, as they move through high school and into college. It’s a simple story, one you might expect to find on the CW; but it’s told with a heightened intimacy and interiority that is rare on TV.
Marianne is the rich girl who is a rebel and a social outsider. “I have nothing to learn from you,” she tells her teacher before walking out of class once again, much to the ridicule of her classmates. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. Connell, on the other hand, is the son of a struggling single mother who cleans Marianne’s house. While Marianne has a chilly relationship with his ice-cold mother, Connell is extremely close to his. At school, he is a popular rugby player who hangs out with a group of crude guys; he’s the quiet one who silently disagrees with their sexist mockery, but he is unwilling to jeopardize his likeability by speaking out. In other words, Marianne and Connell come from different backgrounds and are opposing types.
And yet … the attraction between them is mutual and overpowering, and when they are alone together their differences evaporate. They become secret lovers, pretending they don’t know each other in the school halls — which makes Connell’s life easier, since his pals think Marianne is a loser and he bends to peer pressure. Everything changes, though, when the two are at the same university, in ways that I won’t spoil here. Are love and sex — and there is a good amount of sex in the series — enough to conquer their surface dissimilarities and their respective neuroses? The question haunts the series. You always wonder if they can last, even as Marianne tenderly and affectingly watches Connell sleep through the night via Skype.
Edgar-Jones rewards our attention with a stellar performance that captures every small and large feeling Marianne experiences. I loved watching her, and watching her face change along with Marianne’s personality. Mescal is a revelation, as a gentle soul who has grown up wearing a gender-conforming suit of armor. Both characters have periods of depression, and when Connell falls apart, Mescal is at his most potent. He unleashes the sheer terror underneath Connell’s laid-back persona in ways you won’t forget. The two actors have an amazing chemistry, too, which is essential in this kind of love-under-a-microscope tale.
Occasionally, the story line gets murky; you may forget exactly where the lovers are on their journey, and you may begin to resent all their nebulous feelings — feelings that work better in writing than on the screen. I suspect eight episodes might have been a better length. But the acting will keep you engaged nevertheless, as these two souls struggle for communion.