Hulu’s Normal People begins with a pair of basic archetypes: A jock who secretly loves to read, and a smart girl loner who secretly pines for him. The two meet on an intellectual level, making astute observations about the people around them. They also both have single mothers: One is happy and poor, the other sad and wealthy. The poor mother cleans the rich mother’s house, and through repeated interactions, the two teens from different worlds find themselves growing closer together. The relationship begins with sex and then works to love, but this isn’t a happily-ever-after story.
The series, adapted by Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe from Irish writer Sally Rooney’s 2108 novel of the same name, is a melancholy tale about how love often isn’t enough. It can only heal so much, and in the end, the lovers are left only with what they have learned. This kind of story is more realistic than the classic romances we’re used to as viewers. Even more grounded romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally… and Sleeping with Other People bring the central friends together romantically at the end. But the series isn’t a story about a romance—it’s a story about love and the way it changes over time.
At first, the relationship in question is a secret. Connell (Paul Mescal) is popular and doesn’t want to jeopardize his status in high school. “I think it would be awkward in school if something happened with us,” he says with visible hesitation. Marianne’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) response is more confident: “No one would have to know.” In the years following, power shifts back and forth between them: Although Connell is popular in high school, it’s Marianne who flourishes in college. She will love Connell with all of her heart, and then he’ll pull back in fear, and then she’ll move on just when he realizes he wants her back.
Their love story is sweet, with many truthful moments of beauty and heartache. The two have trouble confiding in their friends, so they save their emotional revelations for each other, with both Mescal and Edgar-Jones taking turns doing the heavy lifting. Where Normal People falls short is creativity: These teenage archetypes are decades old, the “opposites attract” narrative straight out of Grease, and the show’s creators find little new to say about them.
In a post-Not Another Teen Movie world, it’s difficult to experience these tropes—a jock with hidden depth and a brain with untapped lust—without a hint of irony, but that is exactly what Normal People asks of us. It requires viewers to pretend like the last 20 years of teen entertainment don’t exist. Every clichéd element of the story is played painfully straight, with much of the series’ turmoil rooted in the couple’s inherent differences. This approach might work better if Marianne and Connell appeared to have any interior life outside of their respective backstories. Connell has a steady flow of angst as a result of his working-class background and quiet disposition. He falls in love with Marianne the moment he sees her, and then spends the next five years trying to deal with his feelings. The show reveals that he is a writer early on, but rarely shows any interest in the content of his work.
Marianne is Normal People’s most developed character. She is a young heroine who is open about sex, discussing both her curiosities and desires. One day after having sex with Connell, she professes her lust to him. “I was watching you play, and honestly you looked so beautiful. Just kept thinking how much I wanted to watch you have sex. I mean, not even with me. With anybody.” The show is at its best when it allows Marianne to be sexual in these early high school scenes. When she and Connell are alone, there’s a hint of a better show trying to make its way out of a dour shell.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, the show covers four to six years over 12 half-hour episodes, skipping through time as the story develops. But despite the long timespan of the series’ events, the characters’ emotional arcs move at a much slower pace and become lost in the minutiae of Connell’s and Marianne’s lives. This would be fine if the show were populated with compelling supporting characters with stories of their own, but Normal People isn’t interested in developing anyone outside of the main couple. So what’s left is a story that traverses years while still feeling meandering, including a parade of boyfriends for Marianne who all seem to blend together. Sebastian de Souza and Fionn O’Shea do the best with the screen time they have as Gareth and Jamie, respectively, while Lukas (Lancelot Ncube) has the misfortune of being both Marianne’s only Black boyfriend and the most cartoonishly cold of the three. Connell’s girlfriends fare even worse, as they’re rarely acknowledged by the other characters. Aoife Hinds strains to give dimension to Connell’s most serious girlfriend, Helen, and often disappears into the background.
The trouble with adapting a novel is that its pace doesn’t directly translate to an episode of television. And though there is an urge to make a series as long as it takes to read a novel, it’s more compelling to map out the characters’ journeys and reverse-engineer episodes from there. With its wandering gait, Normal People turns what could easily have been a cogent, four-hour series about sex and love into a disjointed, six-hour drag. As streaming services rush to bring novels to television, it’s imperative to put more thought into what these stories gain in their adaptations. We’re a long ways away from the excitement that greeted franchises like Harry Potter, The Lord Of The Rings, and Twilight. These days, an adaptation has to have a unique take on the material. Normal People’s greatest accomplishment will likely be that it pushes viewers to seek out the book instead.