There's something irresistible about teenage angst. Whether like me you've indulged in She's the Man over 50 times, or stared up at a heartthrob poster in your teenage bedroom, there's something about young, uncomfortable love that makes for great art.
And since the remake of Gossip Girl and Archie Comics rip off Riverdale have done little to add to this great genre, I thought a novel-turned-series set in the broody countryside of Ireland would be the appropriate viewing to redeem the teen-angst genre.
Unfortunately for anyone hoping to enjoy a self-indulgent acne-spotted romance, Normal People is far more complicated territory. For one, the popular sports playing lead, Connell, is the son of a housekeeper and the product of a fatherless home. On the other side, the uber-rich Marianne is a pariah at the local high school.
And to top it off, the housekeeper in question happens to work for Marianne’s family. It’s everything we’re not used to – after all, isn’t high school easier when you’re rich? Why would Connell give everything up for the school nerd?
Writing about the show for The New York Times, critic James Poniewozik sums up the magnetism between the pair perfectly:
"What they have in common are an instant attraction and a sharp intelligence. The first tumbles them into bed; the second makes them realise they can talk to each other as with no one else. When they first undress in front of each other – there is much equal-opportunity nudity here – it feels less prurient than like a milestone: They’re each about to get to truly know another person outside their family."
But class and family dynamics aren’t the only issues that take Normal People from a guilty Friday night pleasure to a bingeworthy and frankly brutal watch.
The show’s first turning point begins when Marianne (decidedly uncool) declares her love for Connell (the coolest) and agrees to enter into a secret relationship with him. This protects Marianne from the judgemental eyes of her family and keeps Connell’s street cred in check.
But, like all relationships built on shaky closed-door agreements, the arrangement begins to unravel, and like all relationships drawn out too long, the lovers engage in a near decade-long affair. Their socio-economic positions shift, as do their locations, their needs, and the spectre of the fact that their relationship was in many ways, doomed from the beginning.
There are some seriously gut-wrenching moments throughout the show. Effective, because Rooney's story requires (and achieves) total investment from the viewer, and tear-jerking because their experiences are ultimately universal.
There is the choice around whether to stay with a partner who does not affirm you publicly; there is the question about whether a relationship can survive distance and change and growing up; and there's the (very rarely) proffered question of whether relationships can survive such severe differences in class.
At all moments, the story unfolds to invite the audience to think for themselves, to pick a side and to be an active participant. It's almost reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Before film trilogy which, like Normal People, requires its audience to buy into yet another phase of the journey of Marianne and Connell. It's delicate, it's complicated, and I went on the journey totally willingly.
- Normal People is available to stream on Showmax