Many people are confined to their homes with various family members right now, but Hulu’s new show Normal People is not one to watch with your mom. Trust me on this. Normal People is a journey best taken alone in a dark room (and, if you’re this writer, with—ahem—a certain sexy accessory). The series, especially in the beginning, is uninhibitedly horny and would certainly make for an awkward group watch.
If you’ve read the book, all this hot-and-bothered business probably sounds familiar (author Sally Rooney writes freely and without using conventional punctuation structures, bringing the reader even closer to the action). But it’s also a deeply felt story. For the uninitiated, Normal People is the tale of two Irish teens, outsider Marianne and cool-kid Connell who, against all the odds (namely, a high school social hierarchy) fall in love and float in and out of each other’s lives into their university years. In the new adaptation starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal (both poised for breakouts), the plot is treated delicately and with great care, allowing for lots of small, quiet moments with these characters as they change, mature, break up, have sex, and make up over the years. At first, they hide their relationship from Connell’s popular friends, a group of random hot Irish people who stalk the halls of a high school that looks inexplicably like an airport terminal. Connell comes across as quite a scumbag early on, but the imperfectness of both his and Marianne’s youthful mistakes are part of what makes Normal People so real and endearing.
The sex scenes are graphic, but they’re also realistic and normal-looking—unlike so much sex in film and TV. One thing that’s unique about their dynamic depicted on screen (besides the very explicit, but never leering, sex scenes) is the camera’s attention to Connell. I’ll be the first to say it—this man is hot, if in a rugged, nontraditional sort of way—even in that gaudy chain necklace—and one sweaty scene on the soccer field caters particularly to the female gaze. And many of the moments when Marianne and Connell are in the act seem to be refreshingly focused on her pleasure, though there’s not necessarily an imbalance, either. “It’s not like this with other people,” Marianne remarks at one point. Later, when she’s involved in a not-so-healthy relationship with a domineering partner, she says of her days with Connell, “We had mutual, equally involved kind of sex.” From their very first encounter, it was clear their physical connection was natural and intense. “If you want to stop, it won’t be awkward, just say,” Connell says. Consent and an attentive partner—we love to see it.
And we see it all through the eyes of Marianne, who, as the book’s title might suggest, starts her story as a fairly unspectacular girl who gets teased in awful, cliche ways. But the bulk of the series takes place at Trinity College in Dublin, where, like so many shy girls before her, Marianne blooms into the person she really is—free of bullies and petty high school drama. She finds her groove (and wears some truly striking outfits dripping with crushed velvet, leather and feathers—the wardrobe department really showed up!) and surrounds herself with moony artistic types, while Connell initially struggles to make new connections. (See, it really does get better in college!) Their relationship is frustratingly ambiguous during most of this time, but that question of “Why can’t they just be together and be happy?!” drives the plot forward and keeps the viewer hopelessly engaged through every hook-up, breakdown and longing gaze across the room. While both Marianne and Connell have relationships with other people throughout the series, they represent to each other that concept of one’s end-all-be-all person, a term coined within the melodrama of Grey’s Anatomy, but a fitting one nonetheless. They’ll always have something unshared with anyone else.
While sex certainly plays a big role in telling this story, that doesn’t make it any less emotionally blistering. Don’t watch Normal People unless you’re in the mood to have your feelings build up at the thought of life-changing romance only to be wrecked at a moment’s notice. The music, notably featuring songs by Imogen Heap, Frank Ocean and Carly Rae Jepsen, makes the show’s most poignant moments even more so: The lyric “What the hell is going on?” from “Hide and Seek” plays during a pivotal slo-mo scene, while the line “We’re not in love / but I’ll make love to you” from “Nikes” plays when Marianne is drunkenly searching for Connell at a party. From a craft perspective, the storytelling is top-notch, thanks in no small part to directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald. And lest we forget Ita O’Brien, the show’s intimacy coordinator who is responsible for finessing all that tricky sex-scene choreography.
So, really, in the end, Normal People isn’t just some erotic but sweet story of turbulent young love. It’s a portrait of intimacy itself—and I do mean both kinds, sexual and emotional. There’s an earnestness to it that you won’t find in other TV shows aimed at young adults. But take away all the dynamic storytelling and so-real-it-hurts humanity, and you’re still left with a steamy quarantine binge that’ll leave your heart racing in the best way. But you’ve been warned: Just don’t watch with your friends or loved-ones if you, like Connell, are prone to blushing.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her yapping about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.