Emotions are messy. Are they enough to serve as the only compelling roadblock on a satisfying narrative path? Normal People thinks so. It’s a story that could not be told with the same sincerity even 12 years ago. Now it almost seems rote. Although Normal People based on the novel of the same name does find room for nuance as well as good taste. The story of two beautiful losers. One a blue collar insider, the other a white collar outsider. They struggle with their complicated feelings through their latter years of education. With only themselves standing in the way, life gives them ample opportunities not to screw up.
It is nice during a pandemic to get treated to some professional grade TV. The show is ambitious in its grander than usual timeline (about 6 years) and the handling of intimacy. Directors Lenny Abrahamson & Hettie Macdonald never lose grip on the characters inner thoughts. The bedroom scenes are never embarrassing or superfluous. Most features abandon story to be erotic but the creators never forget its place in the story. They also maintain outside that space, exemplified best by an early football scene.
The early episodes are the highlight exploring Connell and Maryanne’s butterflies-in-the-stomach crush. Exploring the conflict with energy and dynamism. The rest of the series doesn’t maintain the same drive. Like the last act of Lenny Abrahamson’s 2015 film Room. There’s enough goodwill to tide the story and watch emotional fallout. But it does not read as the must see drama it might have been on the page. Characters who are “network TV good looking” as Abed Nadir put it, manage to convince us with sad faces. They frustrate (though never too discomforting) to arrive at obvious conclusions. An array of unconvincing suitors from 90’s sitcoms are always present. Only dramatic irony stands in the way.
By all angles Normal People should view as a tragedy for Millennials. But these performers have the ability to explore any territory in a way that feels fresh. It is a subtle acting accomplishment. If it wasn’t for performance double standards I’d expect Daisy Edgar Jones to earn an Emmy nod alongside Paul Mescal. They play their stereotypical emotions to a hilt. Another subtle achievement in the acting performances is the consistency. The show builds its two leads so well there’s comfort in seeing them even if they’re suffering. Whether from each other or their own making. It’s a missed opportunity the show neglects to place them as each other’s anatgonist.
Maryanne is an ultra-left feminist and Connell is your typical young centrist male. Like people I encountered in my school days. Maryanne is cold, cutting, and closed off. Connell is popular, even headed and an emotionally unintelligent athlete. The latter’s likability rests on his shy-ness (a nice beat for a male character), looks and popularity. Connell condoning the bullying of Maryanne would make a compelling dramatic choice if not for the addition of a minor female character as a mitigating factor who exists to point out “Hey, bullying is bad.” It must be an even worse issue in the U.K. than it is here if that’s the case. The story doesn’t have Connell account for this. He torpedoes his relationship with Maryanne otherwise and his realization as a dramatic story beat comes later. The show’s philosophy seems to come down to men are expected brutes with sensitivity only a bonus rather than a reasonable human expectation. Far be it for them to come to the defense of women unless it calls for violent threats, which also happens later on. The show abandons its topical compelling gender dynamic 1/3 the way through though. It has the tools to tell that compelling story but instead opts for less making good, not great TV.
The show’s relative weightlessness never suffers due to its performances though. Brisk pacing, an above-par soundtrack, and artful composed images tide the audience over. One unanswered photography angle never pays off. And the idea of geographical based tension in 2020 feels a bit passe despite the 2009 trappings. At least the wrap up of the series ties most threads together without tripping over itself. It’s compelling B+ material suitable for the moment. Connell is in convenient film fashion; a scholared genius. Maryanne is a rich depressed pseudo-intellect that due to her ill-fitting suitors never has to live up to her own b.s. She is the woman every Insta-girl bullied in school but wishes they were on weekends. A pretty tragedy. The show’s characters are capable of a lot more but the creators at their best seen content on matching This Is Us style psycho- drama.
Upon conclusion, Maryanne says to Connell “We’ve done so much good for each other.” Given the level of depression we are witness to it is impossible to agree. The show is abundant in delightful moments. Yet it chooses to wallow in darkness. This despite its characters unparalleled mobility and agency to get out of their way. These are smart characters built for bigger problems. Had the show’s creators dug deeper and steered clear of easy dramatic problems they might uncover deeper dramatic issues. But there is no future ex the show doesn’t dangle. No sudden tragedy it doesn’t spring. Content to film beautiful mistakes than offer bolder storytelling opportunities. It too often emptily threatens to take narrative power away from its characters rather than steer them towards meaningful dramatic goals. By following a recipe for the ages, Normal People is comforting millennial soup.
I watched this show on my smartphone and an iPad via the CBC Gem app. On announcement of the Canadian rights one commenter said: “A show CBC would never make themselves but will happily spend taxpayer dollars to acquire.” Smug but correct. Like the repetitive Uber Eats commercials that aired as commercial breaks during this show, everything about this show is content to live down to the expectations about Millennials.
- I hope Lenny Abrahamson directs high fantasy.