Why are we so obsessed with Normal People?

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Jun 03 2020 Posted: 15:40 IST

Author: Maria Tivnan, O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance

Opinion: forget Connell's chain and those sex scenes, Normal People arrived at the right time for this kind of introspection and analysis

Are you watching Normal People? Never mind a novel for our time, this is a question for our time. The numbers speak for themselves: the TV series has surpassed 2.5 million streams on RTE player, 38 million streams on BBC's iPlayer and over 5 million hits on Google. It's the subject of WhatsApp groups, Facebook posts, Twitter threads and print media. Connell's chain even has its own Instagram page and 166,000 followers. So what is this obsession all about? We've all heard about the complaints on RTE Radio One's Liveline, but is Normal People's popularity all really down to the sex?

The past three decades have seen Ireland’s attitude towards sex positively transform in many ways. We have come a long way since Glenroe's controversial roll in the hay with Miley and Fidelma and we want to celebrate this journey in our viewing choices. There’s also a collective curiosity as to what "Irish" sex on television may look like and what this might say about us as a society. Those who lodged complaints must have tuned in at some point, and then there’s the ever popular activity of jumping on the bandwagon. We certainly enjoy the craic and banter that comes with all of that. 

However, it is in the scenes outside of the sex scenes that the alluring nature of this TV drama lies. In relation to Irish remembrance culture and nostalgia, Emilie Pine has written that "we are not who we thought we were, or we remember ourselves differently now". Globally, we are rapidly experiencing momentous changes due to the Covid-19 health crisis. The world is not what it once was, and Normal People works to weave its way through our memory on multiple levels. We remember our youth, our schools, our first loves, our debs; I know I am not alone in my unearthing of debs photos following that particular episode.

Yet it is also reminiscent of a world that has become estranged to us, where people go to school, hang around small town chippers at night, and walk freely in and out beneath the arches of Trinity College. In this sense, it depicts a world that is both familiar and strange. We all knew a Connell and a Marianne, even retrospectively, and perhaps elements of both these characters dwell within many of us. To see the internal worlds of such characters portrayed so eloquently by the cast, particularly Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, creates an intangible draw for us as viewers.

Normal People is undoubtedly more glamorous than your average school experience: the swimming pool parties, the ownership of a coffee press at 19 and the villa in Italy come to mind here. That said, there is a sincerity and fragility created in the spaces between Connell and Marianne. The interplay between their physical proximity and their social distance (actual social distance) is compelling.  Neither one can communicate or, in Connell’s case, complete a full sentence. There are moments when all we want as an audience is for someone to speak; to express what we feel must be on their mind. Does our frustration lie in our wish for this relationship between two fictitious characters to succeed? Or does it lie in our own wishes to do things all over again? To say what we needed to say, to who we needed to say it to?

Both directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald are masterful at creating this atmosphere of tension, creating a heightened awareness of the character’s positions in relation to both their internal and external landscapes. We absorb the gentle rest of Marianne’s head on Connell’s shoulder at Streedagh Beach in Sligo, and feel her distressed clutch to the kitchen sink as Connell initiates their inconclusive break up. It is through highlighting these tiny intricacies that we gain insight into their intimacy, and we want more. Kitchens, classrooms, nightclubs, beaches, car interiors: these are spaces and places we know, and it is in these spaces we also get to know Connell and Marianne, and understand instance by instance, episode by episode what the philosopher Thoreau may be getting at in his statement that "it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see".

This statement also bears light on conflicting views that the Marianne of the TV series is too pretty. However judgements on her appearance, particularly whilst in secondary school, are based on a construct upheld by her poor self esteem and her classmates’ perception of her. Why do we care? Possibly because Connell cares, and this is indicative of some of the preconceptions and notions around female attractiveness and/or gender roles which prevail in our society.  We love Connell; Mescal’s character has a warmth and a vulnerability that is entirely relatable. The Irish like an underdog and, although both of these characters are deserving of this title, there are issues of class at play here, which perhaps gets a little lost in the complex retelling of this relationship.  

Normal People arrives at the right time for this kind of introspection and analysis, yet the series also provides an opportunity for a collective witnessing of sorts, to the state of ourselves and the state of the nation. Joe Exotic will come and go, but the experience of this show may be much slower to fade.

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