Ahead of the final episodes this week, Jessie Collins charts Normal People’s phenomenal success — and wonders how we’ll cope without it.
April 26 seems a long time ago in this strange coronavirus vortex, but it must seem like an age for Normal People director, Lenny Abrahamson, and its stars, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. Element Pictures’ production of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel of the same name was highly anticipated. All the mood music was positive in advance of its streaming on BBC3, but even for a hotly-tipped show, it has exceeded all expectations.
Within days of it airing, Normal People had racked up 16m requests on the BBC’s iPlayer, while 1.1m people and counting have now streamed it on the RTÉ Player.
According to some reports, 30% of 15- to 34-year-olds watching TV have been watching Normal People. It has been embraced in the US, too, with streaming service Hulu having huge demand. Normal People has become that rare bird, both a critical and commercial success, with new territories snapping up the rights to the 12-part series, and hundreds of column inches dissecting the central relationship.
While there was some indication that the series was going to break ground in its depiction of intimacy, more particularly of teenage sex, few could have known how much. When the first two episodes aired on RTÉ One, on April 28, RTÉ Radio One’s Liveline was lit up with complaints about its sex scenes.
“I imagine it was like something you’d expect to see in a porno movie; certainly not for family viewing
- one caller told presenter Joe Duffy.
Pictures of Duffy holding his head in his hands, as he listened to caller after caller conveying their shock, and disbelief, that teenagers behaved in this way, went viral.
For those looking on from the sidelines, it was the reminder of an older Ireland that we didn’t know we needed; and the diversion we were all longing for.
Someone calculated that the series included 41 minutes of sex, making it “the BBC’s raunchiest drama ever”. In the Dáil, Shane Ross, the tourism minister, had to defend a promotional video for Sligo (where some of the show’s scenes are shot) saying that it was “selective” in its use of clips from the episodes.
The kerfuffle made an unwitting star of its intimacy co-ordinator, Ita O’Brien, who guided the actors, and the director, through the sex scenes to stay faithful to the text and the premise that these encounters were central to the narrative, and to Marianne’s and Connell’s dynamic.
Marianne’s first time with Connell was an especially credible rendering of teenage sex. What was particularly captivating was Marianne’s own agency in it, as an equal player — something still quite rare in the portrayal of young women having sex. The scene focused quite wonderfully on her experience. It was candid about contraception and was rightly praised for its depiction of consent. It wasn’t so much erotic as intensely intimate. The characters were not objectified; they were observed.
It may not have given Duffy his best afternoon, but it became a crystallising moment of how far Ireland has travelled in its attitudes and openness.
Perhaps the sleeper element of Normal People’s cultural impact, but the effects of the look and style of the show have been far-reaching.
For one, there is the small matter of Connell’s chain. Few TV accessories have ever been imbued with such meaning. That ubiquitous silver chain has become synonymous with Connell, and with sensitive men everywhere, a talisman to the repressed, monosyllabic teen male. It even got its own Instagram account, currently standing at 140,000 followers and counting.
According to Normal People’s costume designer, Lorna Mugan, fashion was never meant to be central to the show. But that hasn’t stopped a run on so-called ‘Marianne sweaters’ — those chunky, colourful, crew-neck knits Daisy Edgar-Jones makes her own.
It prompted The Guardian’s associate fashion editor to call Marianne “the first great millennial TV style icon”.
But while the style may be zeitgeisty, fashion in the show is primarily used to demonstrate the characters’ development and values. Marianne’s sartorial flourishing after leaving Sligo for Trinity College is indicative of her growing confidence and emboldened sense of identity.
Conversely, Connell’s casual, unflashy style, arriving in Italy in the same beat-up Adidas runners he had when starting college, underpins his steadfastness. What Normal People has achieved in its styling is similar, perhaps, to its sex scenes: Careful details and more natural rendering reaffirming its believability, and its accessibility.
The depiction of a more modern Ireland is, perhaps, one of the most satisfying things about Normal People.
It has shown a recognisable rural and city life: Flats we’ve all lived in or visited; the college experience, in this case in Trinity; the adjustment to adult life after school depicted in a relatable way.
The locations have been already pored over, with the aforementioned Sligo capitalising on the publicity, but also the location of Marianne’s family home in Sligo (TD Shane Ross’s family home in Wicklow); the secondary school where the story begins (Hartstown Community School, in Dublin 15); Tubbercurry, which plays the part of the fictional Carricklea; and the flat on Wellington Road where Marianne lives during college (in reality, home to the owner’s early 20s niece and her friends). There was an authenticity to those locations.
The immediate cross-cultural appeal of Normal People has been one of its triumphs. It has been remarkable to watch just how well something so seemingly Irish and parochial has transferred to other audiences.
It has introduced GAA (and the Irish men who play it) to a whole new world, as well as the very Irish ritual of the debs. But it is the central relationship that has carried it. As James Poniewozik, the New York Times’s chief television critic, who hailed it as a “gorgeous, melancholy series”, put it, the two central characters “have so much chemistry, you may need lab goggles”.
The sheer scale of Normal People’s success has even given hope to the beleaguered streaming channel BBC 3, with claims that the BBC are now reconsidering restoring it as a linear TV channel, alongside its digital broadcast. Meanwhile, the show has also been picked up by streaming service Starzplay, which is owned by Lionsgate. It is to be distributed across Germany, Austria, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Latin America, and Japan, as well as Canada, New Zealand, Russia, and Sweden.
Sally Rooney, already a literary star, has become a household name and a well-off woman. Figures provided by Nielsen Bookscan recently showed that the author’s two novels combined (her debut was Conversations with Friends) have sold £6.18m (€6.97m) in the UK and €1.4m in Ireland. Of that, €5.92m is from the sale of Normal People. It has made overnight sensations of both its leading stars, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, who are now avidly followed by tens of thousands on Twitter and Instagram.
Inevitably, there are calls for a second season, something that would lie in the hands of its creator, Sally Rooney, who, for the moment, is not saying either way. But whether Connell and Marianne get a reprisal or not, Normal People has been the cultural moment of the lockdown and quite possibly of 2020.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.