In case you haven't heard, there’s a lot of sex in Normal People. The best-selling Sally Rooney novel of the same name is sexy, sure, but the Hulu adaptation is literally brimming with nudity. The sex is prevalent — our sweet, but silent, Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) do it in almost every single episode — but it’s not gratuitous or even provocative, as is often the case with the flashier, more unrealistic portrayals of sex on TV. It looks familiar to an audience: the scenes honest, raw, and consensual. In fact, the good sex is also one of the reasons Mescal was "looking forward" to filming those scenes, he tells Refinery29.
One particular challenge of translating Rooney’s novelto a visual medium, including the intimate parts of it, is the fact that so much of Connell and Marianne’s story is internal. The couple, who start in high school as forbidden lovers on the opposite ends of a social ladder, grow and intertwine, ending up as equals who, admittedly, still have no idea how to express their feelings. Days spent quietly agonizing over each other make for compelling literature but not so much TV, so adapting that for the screen presents a particular challenge.
“The language is very pared back and we rely on the audience to make their own conclusions and to empathize with the characters,” Edgar-Jones told Refinery29.
The lack of dialogue makes the scenes of action, particularly in the bedroom, that much more important. Their sexual encounters are stripped bare — in every sense of the word. All the awkward moments of fumbling around, and getting caught in clothes in a rush to remove them, are all kept fully in frame, along with their exposed bodies (notably, there’s male full-frontal nudity, always a rarity in TV or films). It’s part of being a burgeoning sexual teenager, yes, but also part of the general uncertainty of Connell and Marianne’s relationship.
Despite the care taken in the sex scenes, a debate broke out on RTÉ Radio 1’s talkshow Liveline on the heels of the show's release in the United Kingdom. Callers vehemently criticized the show for its portrayal of teenage sex, despite the fact that the characters are 18, and the age of consent in Ireland is 17 years old.
One caller complained that the scenes were "something you’d expect to see in a porno movie." Mescal feels the exact opposite.
“There was an intimacy coordinator on from day one that would facilitate those scenes," he explained, noting that the vibe on set changed each day. "It was always a conversation about what we were comfortable with. You could come in one day and you could feel self conscious."
The shifting nature of the sex scenes was as important behind the camera as it was in front of it. Without their running inner monologues, the physical dynamics between the characters are our only markers of how their power is volleyed back and forth. For instance, in high school, Marianne lets Connell take the lead. He’s the popular one, the one whose acceptance could change Marianne’s life as she knows it. But he refuses to speak up for her when it really matters, which is why Marianne has more than earned the power, both socially and sexually,that she wields over Connell by the time they meet again in college.
Despite some backlash, overall the series’s approach to sex has been rightfully praised.
"Anytime that you get to represent sex in a way that you can recognize on screen and that you think is healthy and educational is few and far between," Mescal said. "We're used to seeing racy, pointless sex scenes and hopefully we're starting to move away from that.”
Instead, Normal People strikes a balance that shouldn’t be surprising, because it’s the one that exists in real life. Sex can be surprising and exciting and nervous and awkward all at the same time. It’s, um, normal.