Imagine you’re a teenage girl who likes a guy. He sure looks handsome on the football field, and when he invites you over to his parentless house, the sex is great. There’s only one catch: he’d prefer that you kept your relationship a secret at school, so as not to attract the prying eyes of other peers. You’re pretty, of course, but your difficult personality and allergy to oppression hasn’t made you well-liked among your lover’s sexist pals. Ah well, I guess that just makes you the Sandy Olsson to his Danny Zuko, and if it worked for them in “Grease,” it can work for you too, right? He’s just a nice guy, anyway, who blushes when asked to share his opinion.
Yet there is a fine line between “nice” and “cowardly,” and boy does your boyfriend cross it multiple times. He thinks you’re overreacting when you’ve finally decided to stop returning his calls after you’ve watched him stand around impotently as his friends call you an “ugly, flat-chested bitch” before grabbing your breast. Oh yeah, and the girl who dismissed the sexual assault you endured as “a joke” is the person your boyfriend asks to the school dance in order to preserve his reputation. Would you really want to keep on sleeping with him after that, let alone spend six hours with him?
That is the central dilemma facing Hulu’s new series, “Normal People,” a gloomy adaptation of Irish author Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel that is comprised of twelve half-hour episodes, each one more maddening and less compelling than the last. Binging it all at once is an experience tantamount to being stuck on a bad date that refuses to end long after it has been established that you and the person at the other end of the table are obviously incompatible. Not once was I ever rooting for the show’s protagonists, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), to end up together, especially after the latter’s aforementioned passivity turned unforgivable in the first few episodes.
Sure, what is considered “normal” behavior in high school is often the sort of abject cruelty spawned from a need to conform, yet Connell’s selfishness extends far past that point. He feeds directly into Marianne’s wrongful belief that she deserves to be treated poorly, later blaming her for their relationship falling apart again in college, when he clearly was the one who walked out on her. Despite her stated hatred of the patriarchy, Marianne quickly proves all too willing to instruct her lovers that they can do anything they want to her—even things she wouldn’t want to do—making her the latest despairing addition to an array of submissive heroines from bestsellers, such as Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele, who are routinely defined by the men in their lives.
As soon as Connell asks for her forgiveness, Marianne drops everything so that she can be back with him. Of course, the plot is an emotionally stacked deck requiring practically every other person in her life to be worthless, making Connell look better if only by contrast. There’s a would-be wrenching scene where the camera lingers on his face—recalling the indelible close-up from “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”—as he blubbers to a therapist about his dead friend, whose loss would’ve hurt more had he been given any memorable scenes, aside from when he boastfully shared intimate pictures of his girlfriend at a dance. Mescal is most effective when his emotions spill out, calling to mind the crooked-mouthed vulnerability of Franz Rogowski, yet there is a blankness to him wherever Connell clings to his cloak of indifference. Travolta conveyed more with his fleeting expression of regret launched at a smirking Rizzo in “Grease” than Mescal ever does during this series.
The sole bright spot of “Normal People” is the performance by Edgar-Jones, which transcends the shortcomings of the material considerably with its complexity and nuance, though I grew increasingly tired of watching her character being physically and verbally abused by everyone from her monstrous family to her unseemly series of rebounds, including a cocky sadist whose mustache-twirling would give Billy Zane a run for his money. Most insufferable of all is her brother, Alan (Frank Blake), a one-note cesspit of self-pity who speaks to her as if he’s attempting to start a barroom brawl and deserves nothing less than a kick to the groin administered by Julia Garner’s “Ozark” heroine before being promptly tossed overboard. Warranting more screen time is Marianne’s enigmatic mother, Denise (Aislin McGuckin), who was herself a victim of abuse at the hands of her deceased husband, and has now helplessly submitted to that same dynamic with Alan. Had this family been put in therapy, we may have had something worth watching here.
Instead, we are subjected to a low-stakes narrative numbering a mere 266 pages that is stretched past the breaking point. Episode One is the foreplay, with the hook essentially boiling down to, “Will they or won’t they?”, leading to the first of many much-publicized sex scenes, none of which are explicit nor are they all that groundbreaking in their realness. Yet the camera’s preference to hold on the actors’ faces does make these encounters all the more erotic, and there’s a lovely moment when they take a beat to explore each other’s bodies with their eyes for the first time, after laughing over Connell’s awkward attempt at removing Marianne’s bra. These sequences are a refreshingly raw alternative to the now laughable lovemaking found in such dated blockbusters as “Top Gun,” yet the series also has its fair share of heavy-handed metaphors (Connell backs up at a literal crossroads when he changes his mind) and on-the-nose lyrics embedded in the soundtrack (“Take Me Back to the Night We Met”). I also couldn’t understand why the characters repeatedly walked through the rain without an umbrella, other than to accentuate the melodrama.
Unlike Hulu’s instantly addictive “Mrs. America” currently releasing new episodes every Wednesday, “Normal People” will likely try the patience of viewers unless they already happen to be fans of the book. Oscar-nominee Lenny Abrahamson directed the first six episodes while BAFTA-winner Hettie Macdonald helmed the last six, though I couldn’t detect much difference between their styles, at least in the conspicuously unfinished cut screened for review. If anything, I found the pace of Abrahamson’s half a bit more assured, with Episode Four being the finest, as it devotes equal time to exploring Connell and Marianne’s individual lives on the campus of Dublin’s Trinity College, enabling them to haunt each other’s stories (they are more interesting when apart, no question). As the show progresses, the timeline becomes more fragmented, with various title cards marking the months while leaving no dramatic impact. Episode Six opens with a smashed glass in a sink before jumping back to “six weeks earlier,” as if banking on our eagerness to see how the glass was broken. “Little Fires Everywhere” this is not.
I’ll admit that the very final scene of the series is a surprisingly mature one, evoking the poignance of “Splendor in the Grass,” yet it is far too little too late. Part of why I couldn’t ever forgive Mescal’s character is the fact that he simply looks too old for the role—certainly old enough to know better. In fact, he looks roughly the age of his own mother, Lorraine (Sarah Green, only 11 years Mescal’s senior), who is as saintly as Denise is catatonically cold. The resentment Connell may have built toward his girlfriend’s wealthy family, considering they employed his mother as their underpaid housekeeper, is briefly alluded to but never adequately addressed. We are also never granted the privilege of sampling his allegedly brilliant writing, which forms an essential part of his bond with Marianne, who had been encouraging his creativity from the beginning. What we’re left with is a frustrating, fractured romance between an inarticulate weakling and a woman who deserves so much better. Connell himself put it best when responding to his mother’s claim that she wanted to live vicariously through him. “If you’re going to live vicariously,” he quips, “I’d pick someone a little bit more exciting.” I couldn’t agree more.