There is nothing normal about the reaction to Normal People, which came to an end on BBC1 on Monday and RTE1 last night with a pair of episodes that didn’t tie everything up in a neat, happily-ever-after bow.
I’m not referring to the various cranks, prudes and rosary-bead rattlers complaining on Liveline about the sex scenes, which were sensual but always sensitively handled, and the opposite of exploitative. That was an irritating, irrelevant sideshow; by the following week, they’d moved on to complaining about a TV ad for tampons.
What wasn’t normal, or at least wasn’t expected, was that a series ostensibly aimed at the so-called millennials — the 18-to-37 age group coveted by advertisers and courted assiduously by terrestrial channels desperate to hang onto a dwindling audience — would find such favour across the board.
The entire series has been available on the BBC iPlayer in the UK for six weeks, and so far, 21.6 million people — 32pc of the population — have watched it. The number goes up when you add people watching it weekly on BBC1. The figures in Ireland have been impressive too: 371,000 between RTE One and the RTE Player.
What’s most notable, though, is the make-up of the audience. It seems a sizeable chunk of viewers, at least in the UK, were people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. So much for broadcasters that worship at the altar of demographics.
The huge viewing figures, wherever they originate, are heartening and should act as a lesson to television executives who like nothing better than putting things into boxes — when, that is, they’re not ticking boxes.
Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell in Normal People (Enda Bowe/BBC/PA)
Great TV drama is great TV drama, no matter what the supposed target audience is. I haven’t read Sally Rooney’s novel and so can’t vouch for the fidelity to the source material of this adaptation by Hulu and BBC Three (and not, as one erroneous Wikipedia page, since corrected, stated, Hulu and RTE). But judged purely on its merits as television drama, Normal People was sublime.
It may be a modern, unconventional love story about two modern, unconventional young people struggling to find their place in the world and in one another’s lives, but in many ways it was — and I mean this as a compliment and not a criticism — a surprisingly old-school drama.
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In other hands, it might have been a very different series: one full of offbeat camera angles; fast, whooshy editing; and contemporary pop songs pounding on the soundtrack. There were songs here, enough of them to fill the inevitable tie-in CD, but they were used sparingly and subtly to enhance and underscore the storytelling, rather than as a substitute for it.
The direction, shared equally between Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, was sober, deliberate and understated without being drab. Neither was afraid of the long, slow take. It perfectly complemented the scripts by Rooney and her co-writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe.
This was marvelous writing: crisp, precise and economical. The gaps between the dialogue were as important as the dialogue itself.
It all would have counted for nothing if the two young leads hadn’t been up to the job. But Daisy Edgar-Jones and newcomer Paul Mescal were superbly naturalistic as Marianne and Connell, who are repeatedly drawn to one another and driven apart.
It was hard to believe that, excepting a TV advert, this was Mescal’s first screen role. He was electrifying in the scene where the reserved Connell finally cracks apart and describes his sense of alienation to a psychiatrist.
You could quibble that we never found out why Marianne’s family despised her or what emotional damage drove her to seek out abusive relationships with other men.
But real life doesn’t always have tidy explanations, and Normal People was as close to real life as any drama we’re ever likely to see. It’s been an outstanding series.