It's likely there was never going to be a perfect adaptation of Normal People, Sally Rooney's excellent best-selling novel detailing the complicated but tender relationship between two Irish teens, but Hulu's attempt, which is now streaming, is a valiant effort.
Faithfully adapted for TV by Rooney with writers Alice Birch and Mark O'Rowe, Normal People stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne, a quiet and intelligent teen from an affluent family who's starved for love by her widowed, emotionally unavailable mother and abusive older brother. Although she doesn't fit in at school, she flourishes once she goes to Trinity College in Dublin and is free from her family's influence and the yoke of small town society. Paul Mescal, in his first television role, portrays Connell, an equally intelligent teen who is well liked at school but is quietly lonely and who struggles to find his place once he goes to Trinity, as what he wants for himself and what society tells him he wants causes him emotional distress.
The series covers the years between the end of Marianne and Connell's school days in County Sligo, Ireland, when they embark on a deeply intense relationship that Connell insists they keep private because of their individual places within the social hierarchy -- a decision that hurts both and helps no one -- through their undergraduate years, where fluctuating power dynamics put a strain on their relationship. Issues of class, privilege, submission, and emotional scarring compound the duo's frequent miscommunications -- or in some cases, complete inability to communicate -- resulting in a painful series of highs and lows.
While it's relatively easy for the novel to make multiple time jumps as periods of close friendship and intimate sex give way to months of little to no communication, the show struggles to effectively do the same, creating a pacing problem that hinders the back half of the show. When a later episode details Connell's struggle with depression after the death of a childhood friend, it seemingly arrives out of nowhere and is gone just as quickly, a development that in effect reveals the show's greatest weakness: its inability to properly and authentically convey its characters' deepest thoughts and feelings.
Rooney's novel, which is told from both characters' points of view, is deeply introspective, relying heavily on Marianne's and Connell's innermost thoughts to convey to the reader everything they're not saying aloud, either because they don't have someone they feel they can talk to (Marianne) or because they tend not to say much at all (Connell). Without this intimate access to the characters, their feelings, and their motivations (or lack thereof), the show can't help but fail to reach the same level of emotional storytelling.
Directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room), who directed the first six episodes, and Hettie Macdonald (Doctor Who's "Blink"), who helmed the last six, do excellent work to make up for this loss of access, though, using closeups to convey intimacy and letting the camera linger in all the right places at all the right times. Their direction makes for a beautiful piece of art that draws the viewer in and allows them to see the characters as they might see one another, but it still can only do so much. Without access to Connell's thoughts, the status of his mental health isn't as openly obvious to viewers, so while his reaction to his friend's death and everything that comes after it feels like a natural progression of his story on the page, it threatens to feel jarring on screen. In that same vein, we never receive the same level of access to Marianne, so we never experience her thought process as she allows herself to submit to and be treated poorly by different people in her life, even though it isn't hard to understand how or why this happens.
The first six episodes of the series, which feature the end of school and the first year of college, are easily the strongest part of the show -- which is hardly a surprise as that was also the strongest part of Rooney's novel as well -- but the series is bolstered throughout by engaging performances from both Edgar-Jones and Mescal, who breathe life into a story that is hyper-focused on what's often left unsaid between two people. The result is a show that is surprisingly honest, frequently heartbreaking, and sometimes frustrating, but always worth watching.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
All 12 episodes of Normal People are now streaming on Hulu.