Pitching a teenage romance and coming-of-age story is not easy.
The genre is stuffed with entries from the last 30 years that could fill 10 high school gyms, and it conjures thoughts of melodrama, bad jokes and even worse character archetypes.
“Normal People” slices through that riff-raff quickly and elevates itself beyond being pigeonholed in the teen-drama genre. Adapted from Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name, the 12-part limited series was released in full April 29 on Hulu.
This is a true coming-of-age tale, following Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) from the end of high school through college. Their relationship, romantic and otherwise, is the heart of the show. Their romance ebbs and flows throughout the series’ six-hour runtime, as the two of them explore their bodies, their minds and their worldview.
There are a number of supporting characters along the way who add to and subtract from Marianne and Connell’s character development. But the show is a two-hander at its core, and Edgar-Jones and Mescal give the star-making breakout performances necessary for “Normal People” to work as well as it does.
The story begins in Sligo, a sleepy county bordering the Atlantic in northwest Ireland. Connell is seemingly the most popular kid at school. He sits at the cool-kids’ table and is the star of the Gaelic football team. It’s clear Connell is ready to break away from this life; he likes to read and write and learn — things his school friends don’t find interesting.
Marianne is a social outcast and comes from a wealthy and grossly unloving family, driving her vulnerability and self-loathing that permeates the story. Connell’s mother, Lorraine (Sarah Greene), is a housekeeper who works for Marianne’s ill-humored mother.
In the first episode, during the first real conversation between Marianne and Connell at school, we catch a glimpse of how these two interact with each other and the world around them.
Marianne, after getting two detentions in a week, says: “I object to every thought or action or feeling of mine being policed like we’re in some authoritarian fantasy.”
“It’s not that, though, is it?” Connell replies. “It’s just school. Same for everybody; it’s not unique for you.”
Later, after the conversation takes an awkward turn, Marianne says: “I know you probably hate me, but you’re the only person who actually talks to me.”
“I never said that I hated you,” Connell says.
“Well, I like you,” Marianne says. Connell leaves it there but seeks clarification later, and the relationship is off and running.
Wait, you ask, I thought you said this wasn’t the typical teen drama? The high school saga lasts for only the first three episodes, serving almost as a prologue for the rest of the storyline. Marianne and Connell both head to Trinity College in Dublin, their relationship left in a rocky and nebulous place.
The beauty of “Normal People,” among many other things, is its storytelling and narrative structure. The plot spans about four years and pops in and out on Marianne and Connell’s lives in the middle of a scene.
The state of their relationship is left for the audience to figure out, as we see they are drawn to each other, even when they are dating other people. Each episode is a snapshot, a vignette, not unlike the “Before Sunrise” romantic film trilogy — but instead of jumping into their story every nine years, it’s every few months.
Marianne transforms dramatically over the years, blossoming in college. She even points out this cliche, at a party as freshmen at Trinity, saying, “It’s classic me. Came to college and got pretty.” Connell tells her she was always very pretty.
Connell, meanwhile, while achieving lots of success academically as an English major, finds adjusting to this stage of life to be difficult and misses the comfort of Sligo.
“Normal People” features high-level acting, writing and directing. It is intimate by design. It does feature graphic sex scenes — but not in an exploitative way; the sex becomes a character itself in the story. The moody alt-rock soundtrack enhances each moment it is unleashed. Most of all, the show is immersive and addicting, a television-watching experience that feels both thoroughly relatable and larger than life.
“Normal People” will cut you deep inside, turn you inside out and spill your feelings all over the floor. By the end of it, you’ll be scooping those feelings up because you want to experience them all over again.
Warner Strausbaugh is a Colorado Springs resident and page designer for Pikes Peak Newspapers. Contact him with questions and feedback at email@example.com.