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‘Normal People’ is the soaring, achy, authentic cure for anyone who’s sick of rom-coms

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell in “Normal People.” (Hulu)

Drowning as we are in streaming rom-coms, it’s easy to forget what a show about real love might look like. “Normal People,” Hulu’s beautifully made, achy-breaky adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, is here to reckon with the possibilities of how first love feels — the thrumming ecstasies and deepest hurts.

From the very first of its 12 half-hour (-ish) episodes, “Normal People” (premiering Wednesday, in conjunction with its BBC release) exemplifies the very idea of escapist, captivating storytelling — a love story that gets so close to the real deal that a viewer becomes as besotted as the lovers themselves. It’s one of the best works of TV I’ve watched so far this year, and the rare show during this pandemic stay-home saga that made me forget everything else.

For six engrossing hours, I was instead invested in the lives and decisions of Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal), two secondary-school seniors in County Sligo, Ireland. She’s intelligent, outspoken and resentfully ostracized by her peers, especially the snooty girls and preening jocks; he’s a popular rugby player who is far smarter and more introspective than his obnoxious friends.

Forced as I am in my line of work to screen innumerable teenage dramas in which everyone snarks away in a perfected trash-patter instead of meaningful dialogue, it’s astonishing to watch as Edgar-Jones and Mescal summon forth an authentic spark from little more than exchanged glances — her curious glares and his mumbled hellos. Connell’s single mom, Lorraine (Sarah Greene), works as a house cleaner in the well-to-do home of Marianne’s coldly unaffectionate mother, Denise (Aislín McGuckin); beyond that fact, at school, they barely acknowledge one another.

Until they don’t. In blunt defiance to her own insecurities, she tells him she likes him. He’s been hiding his attraction to her. Before long their shyness gives way to a passionate after-school relationship that they both agree to keep secret, at his request, so he doesn’t have to explain to his friends that he’s seeing the girl nobody likes. That Marianne acquiesces to this arrangement is one of “Normal People’s” central barriers to a happy ending.

So they base it on sex. This is another aspect to the show that is perfectly handled, even if some viewers might find it bracingly frank. Hats off to the show’s intimacy coordinator on this one — the intimacy has not only been duly coordinated, it transcends anything that might get in its way. (In other words, they’re beautiful and it’s beautiful. Enjoy!)

The bliss is short-lived, however, once Connell asks one of the popular girls to the school’s annual debutantes ball. Both Mescal and Edgar-Jones are particularly good in scenes where Connell and Marianne’s anguish is privately, separately internalized. A wounded Marianne finishes the school year but quits attending classes until the final exams.

They both, however, wind up at Trinity College that fall, three hours away in Dublin. Turns out her natural beauty, smarts and wealth fit right in with an appreciative college crowd, while he struggles to adapt to the big city and a rearranged life. (Although “Normal People” makes it increasingly clear that Connell is the more gifted scholar — a man of few words whose writing and thinking impresses his teachers and classmates.)

Reunited at a house party midsemester, can they, will they ever be right for one another? “Normal People” follows this question for several years, as Marianne and Connell fall back together, then apart, and experience other relationships. They are each carrying their own burdens, baggage and anxieties. A kind of exasperation creeps in for the viewer, as a cycle of intimacy and reticence plays out again and again.

Although I haven't read Rooney's novel, I still felt very much in the grip of a story in which the unsaid is as important as what is said, the kind of thing you get from words on a page. So much of the TV version of "Normal People" (which Rooney co-wrote with Alice Birch and Mark O'Rowe) is revealed in its quick-clip editing, timeline structure and atmospheric details. The marginal things become magnified and emotionally significant. If someone can't get the feels from this one, you might want to check their pulse.

Normal People (12 episodes) available for streaming Wednesday on Hulu.

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