We All Want to be Normal People

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

It’s taken Culture Journal Ireland a while to get into this one, but with seemingly everyone talking about Normal People, for one reason or another, we felt it was about time we cast our eye across this much hyped phenomenon.

Based on the novel by the same name by Sally Rooney and directed by award winning directors Lennie Abrahamson and Hettie McDonald, the series is set in a fictional co. Sligo town and in the latter stages Dublin.

The two main characters played by Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal, are key two the whole thing. The two leads are likable and seem like a natural fit on screen. In the early stages they come across as the sort of characters that, if we didn’t know anyone like them when you were at school yourself then it’s a pretty safe bet that we were them. The popular one and the nerdy, daydreaming bookworm. Each character from opposite ends of the social spectrum, their paths cross, in part, because Connell’s mother, (played by Sarah Greene who was previously seen in fellow BBC/RTÉ co-production Dublin Murders) who is a cleaner for Marianne’s mother.

In school Marianne is seen as a social pariah, someone who isn’t popular among the “cool kids”. These early scenes perfectly illustrate the laddish culture that many fall into the trap of. The characters somehow forge a bond that some seem unlikely because each sees something in the other that’s hidden beneath the shallow surfaces that so many are obsessed with in school. Because of this they soon become romantically involved, and therein lies the much publicised controversary the show has attracted as the two become physically and emotionally involved. The two leads work well together on screen, often appearing nervous and hesitant, a realistic element of many relationships.

As the two approach leaving school the two decide to both go to Trinity College, one of the top universities in Ireland, this is no ordinary television series, this is a television series for top notch smart people! Presumably this is a semi-autobiographical element as Rooney herself went to Trinity, and let’s face it is probably always a popular choice.

The difference in class is there for all two see, but, unlike many programmes it isn’t addressed overtly until roughly the middle of the series, Connell commenting on how crazy it is that they are each able to travel. This particular scene seemed a bit awkward and not needed. It is already understood that the two come from different backgrounds and this sort of overt signposting just serves as a distraction.

Much has been of the sex scenes in Normal People. They are indeed frequent and graphic at times, which has been the basis for much of the criticism. Some of the scenes could, if you were being ultra-critical seem to come when the dialogue runs dry. If this is focused on too much however many of the more subtle nuances can be overlooked.

Some of the better scenes illustrate the tenderness and respect for each other that the two main characters genuinely seem to have. There is a shy awkwardness between the two lovers, typical both of their age and the stage the relationship is in. At their most graphic, (without giving too much away) some of the scenes where the two are apart merely go to illustrate the point further that perhaps these are two people that work better together than they do with anyone else.

There are a wealth of characters who compliment the front pair beautifully, from the mischievous and cheeky Peggy, (played by an unrecognisable India Mullen, who some might remember as the long suffering Hennessey in Red Rock), there is also Joanna, the sort of quirky hippy girl type that almost everyone must have gone to college with.

Then there’s Jamie, the one that almost everyone (including Connell) love to hate, the sleazy slime ball yuppy type. This character is played almost perfectly by Fionn O’Shea. His sense of privilege is overt, and in this case works because it seems typical of the character. The only difference being that you don’t know if he’s a cliché or a parody and it’s hard to see how the character can have anything other than limited use.

One of the most interesting elements of the series which works very well is the insecurities that both the main characters display, Connell at times unable to express himself full. The fact that he is quite often unable to finish his sentences has recently become the subject of parody. It is however, fair to say that many men, whether they be Irish or otherwise are often unable to express their true selves,; often relying on alcohol in order to do so and this is an important component in the difficulties Marianne and Connell face.

Another important and contrasting component however, is the fact that Marianne also displays insecurities to someone who quite clearly loves her. She is quite often describing herself as ugly and questioning why anyone would love her.

On the whole, once you look past the supposed controversy this series has attracted as well as the obvious weaknesses, what you are left with is a well made Irish drama which has more tenderness than titillation.

The only question to be asked is, if there is to be a second series; which, given the success of the first one there undoubtedly will be, where will it go? If it follows the same pattern as this one many casual viewers may drop off. If the two star-crossed lovers do not end up together; as many loyal fans might hope for, then that loyalty may soon wain. What cannot be denied is that this series has unleashed two bright young stars into the acting world and it will be interesting to see where both they and the series go from here.

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