As is the case for all TV and film content that is making its way into the world during this era of “social distancing” brought about due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Normal People was made in a world that is vastly and unexpectedly different from the one it is being released into.
As an American viewer, this recent experience of consuming content created for a presumed world that did not come to pass is vaguely reminiscent of the experience of watching television in the months following the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump was elected president, to the surprise of many, including Hollywood writers and producers. What followed was a period of time in which we were watching television that was made for a country presumed to have its first woman president but rather living in a reality in which a former reality TV star/businessman with an alleged history of sexual assault was instead in charge. I refer to this viewer experience as TK whiplash.
Normal People, based on the 2018 Sally Rooney novel, is set in Ireland in the period following the 2008 economic crash, but, like all stories, it is also about the time in which it is written. More relevantly, the 12-part adaptation that hit Hulu last week was written, filmed, and edited together in a pre-pandemic era innocent to how abruptly and totally our “normal” lives were about to change. For some TV productions, this kind of debut timing has caused an experience unintentionally laced with nostalgia and longing, as we watch TV characters go out to dinner or a party or spend time with their extended families and friend circles. (The luxury!) For Normal People, which is so much about the power of physical and emotional intimacy, both allowed and denied, it’s a startling reminder of just how precious physical touch can be.
As actor Paul Mescal so beautifully puts it: “I think for a world in which physical touch is prohibited, this is a show that has a lot of physical touch. Even intimacy is something that a lot of people are lacking at the moment. Like, in general, I’m living by myself at the moment. Human contact is a commodity in which not a lot of people have at the moment. I think there’s definitely enough of that to go around with this show.”
I find Mescal’s use of the word “commodity” in his quote above super interesting. It is indicative of the socialization so many of us who have grown up and continue to live in a capitalist culture have received, and the way we are encouraged to think about all things, including relationships, as transactional. As young people in asset-rich countries are increasingly asked to work more for less, human contact and intimacy becomes something, to put it in capitalist terms, we simply can’t afford—or at least that is what we are told.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has made people’s access to physical and emotional intimacy in generally much more limited, this exploration of the power and importance of human connection likely would have struck a cultural chord in our previous status quo. To assume that there were no lonely people before the global pandemic began is to misunderstand the modern world. The breakdown in community structure in the United States has been one of the unfortunate hallmarks of late-stage capitalism. As people work longer hours for less pay, they have less time for the growing and nurturing of community. We are encouraged to spend all of our “free” time, should it exist, with our nuclear family or, should we be single, in search of the next cycle of it. In late-stage capitalism, that is more or less all of the community we are allowed.
This seems to be especially true for young people who move to urban areas, which are simultaneously where the jobs are and much more expensive to live in. Rooney’s novel (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Hulu series) focuses on the kinds of social and material support upper class Marianne has that working class Connell does not, especially as they leave the relatively tight-knit community of their small town and head to university in Dublin. For Connell, this is not only an academic choice (he longs to study), but an economic one. Unlike Marianne, he needs a job and one of the consequences of the 2008 economic crash was, as this Jacobin article points out, “the young are forced to leave the small towns of their childhood in search of jobs and opportunity in urban centers.”
There has been some pushback against the use of the phrase “social distancing” as a way to describe the limitations we must place on our own interactions because we don’t necessarily need to stay socially or emotionally distance from others, but rather physically distant. For some, especially those who aren’t living alone, this era of “social distancing” has not meant a decrease in human connection but rather an uptick. Fewer people are working. This can, of course, come with its own stresses and mental health repercussions, but it has also given some families (of all kinds) more time to spend together and communities the time and energy to appreciate one another.
“I think it is such a strange time, but I mean I think it’s also actually quite an emotional time,” says Normal People actor Daisy Edgar-Jones. “You feel very connected to your community and the people around you. We do this thing [in the UK] on a Thursday where we do a clap for the NHS and I always feel a bit like, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to think of everyone around us supporting each other.'”
Speaking more specifically about the series, Edgar-Jones adds: “And I think this show is really about human connection and about the goodness you can give each other, if you’re with the right person. I feel it’s a really nice thing for people to watch, to find those relationships that ultimately make you a better person and to strive for them.”
So does Normal People hit differently during the “social distance” era? No, and yes. It is a show about the power of physical touch and emotional intimacy. In late-stage capitalism, these things are not valued but rather reprioritized outside of their ability to be commodified. Therefore, this story about people who are made better because of the intense and confusing human connection they have with one another would have always been an important and cathartic one to tell. But perhaps “social distancing” gave us a more immediate and extreme framework through which to talk about it.
Normal People is currently available to watch in its entirety on Hulu.