My immediate thought after streaming the first two episodes of the Hulu series Normal People was, “God, I hope my high school students are watching this.” That may sound strange considering those episodes concern two high schoolers in the throes of a passionate after-school liaison, full of bare breasts, casually flung f-bombs, and frank talk of penetration. While I doubt any of this explicit content is much of a departure from my students’ regularly scheduled programming, Normal People has one ingredient that I worry is being wholly neglected in their media diet: intimacy.
Last year, Sam Levinson’s HBO series Euphoria offered us a kaleidoscopic vision of modern teenage sexuality, inundated with pornography and refracted into varying modes of performance, objectification, and humiliation. Violence against the body and against individual self-esteem seemed par for the course for any sexual encounter. More sympathetic depictions exist, as well, such as Netflix’s Big Mouth, which couches somewhat straightforward sex education lessons into an animated, comedic smorgasbord of adolescent grotesqueries. But Normal People has something else entirely. It’s actually sexy.
We feel the characters’ desires, but also their hesitations, their insecurities, and the rapturous delight when those self-inflicted impediments fall away. Sally Rooney, executive producer, co-writer, and author of the novel from which the show is adapted, has been widely celebrated as the emerging bard of her generation for her tender facility in capturing the urges and frustrations particular to the millennial psyche. Her sensitive characterizations here are embodied by the young actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, whose spellbinding chemistry as Marianne and Connell is the gravitational force around which the entire 12 episodes revolve.
Few shows have been about less, while still feeling so overfull. A caress long yearned for; a kiss to the stomach, delayed, then applied with such softness we feel the shivers of its reception. There is drama in the minuteness of intimacy. There is power in vague, unassailable touch. The levers of story are the push and pull of these bodies. Their embrace is the center from which all else radiates and returns.
But youthful love is not all romance. These are formative years, and Marianne and Connell must face the trials of their burgeoning sexual identities. Consent and respect figure largely in the drama of their copulation. They experiment with other modes of sexual expression, as well. Self-worth and sex are a necessary entanglement, and Rooney follows these threads through to their knotty heart.
Ultimately, true to any coming-of-age story, Normal People is about discovery and growth. But, unlike so many teenage romances, it’s not about the growth it takes to discover the right person. Normal People is about the growth that occurs through that discovery. Sex isn’t a goal line. It’s a range of experience within which we can find ourselves. Most of us know this. Somebody just needs to let the kids in on the secret.