Normal People is the most anticipated, buzzed-about British show of the week. It's a faithful BBC/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney's novel about a relationship between two Irish college students who can't quit each other. The book won awards in the UK and became a fetish object for hip literary people. It drew praise from the likes of Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift and became a totemic object on Instagram. But as faithful to the original as it may be, does it make for riveting drama? Just a quick reminder before you move on that there are some spoilers ahead.
Normal People Is A Good Adaptation
The show feels like a 6-hour version of a Taylor Swift song. 12 half-hour episodes faithfully translate the novel in all its minute, intimate detail. It begins with Connell and Marianne in high school. He's the popular jock. She's the unpopular nerd that everyone picks on. His mother works as a cleaner for her mother's house. He falls in love with her and she agrees to keep their relationship a secret from everyone in school because he's afraid of being shunned like her. When they go to college together, she blossoms but he feels lost. They love and hurt each other, break up but come back again and again in that way that kids do.
Every nuance of gender difference, class difference, mental health, emotional abuse is explored. Sally Rooney scripts with Alice Birch and Mark Rowe, translating the interiority of the book into speech and gesture. Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie MacDonald direct with the camera catching every moment of intimacy, every instance of joy and hurt of young love. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones (who looks kind of like a younger Sally Rooney) are soulful and radiant. And yet it's all rather boring. Millennials have adopted Sally Rooney as their poet laureate because she recreates their thought processes and emotions with precise accuracy. They swoon over the way she records the banality of their conversations and exchanges. But that doesn't make it insight. That's just reportage.
We Need More from Drama
There's a call for drama that explores the nuances of relationships without the bells and whistles of guns, car chases, or exploding buildings, but somehow this is not enough. Connell and Marianne's relationship is obsessive and unhealthy. They keep repeating the same patterns of past traumas that they keep breaking up and getting back together again like an endless cycle. They don't change. They keep hurting each other in the same ways, then make-up, and do it all over again. It's an accurate portrayal of how everyone hurts each other when they're young and in love because that's the problem with being young, callow, and hurtful. Yet it feels way too familiar.
Maybe teenagers and twentysomethings love the book (and the show) because they feel seen. It validates their emotions and their love lives. To viewers who are no longer teenagers, it feels a bit "Yeah, but so what?" We've all been there. This just looks like a recreation of the banality of those times rather an illuminating it. The show and the book feels like we're reading someone's diary. Yes, society messes up young people, and then they're jerks to each other. That's not exactly a new insight.