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Hulu's 'Normal People' knows mental health, like love, is complicated. And that's OK.

The adaptation of Sally Rooney's beloved novel isn’t necessarily here to make viewers feel happier, but it should provide some much-needed reassurance.
Episode 3
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in "Normal People" on Hulu.Enda Bowe / Element Pictures / Hulu

There’s something a bit cruel about releasing “Normal People” in the middle of quarantine. Chances are you don’t need a reminder right now about the power of unexpected, face-to-face human connection. But the miniseries, which premieres on Hulu for U.S. audiences Wednesday, is beautiful enough that you probably won’t mind leaning into the despair.

(Some spoilers below.)

Based on Sally Rooney’s beloved second novel, the series sticks closely to its acclaimed source material.

Based on Sally Rooney’s beloved second novel, the series sticks closely to its acclaimed source material. The 12-episode adaptation follows the lives of two Irish teenagers, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), through the lens of their intense on-off relationship during high school and college, made complicated by their insecurities and shifting social statuses.

Rooney has a gift for creating characters that feel as if they’re standing right next to you, fully formed and as endearing as they are frustrating. Just like the book, the miniseries lays bare all the messy intricacies of relationships, sex and intimacy in a way that’s sharply attuned to power dynamics, while achieving that rare combination of storytelling that feels both sophisticated and accessible.

The aspect of “Normal People”that deserves special recognition, though, is how the series handles difficult mental health conversations explicitly and with a level of care rarely found on TV.

While loneliness hangs heavily throughout the entire series, the last three episodes pay special attention to the realities of battling mental illness. After a difficult transition to college and then losing a close friend to suicide, Connell experiences panic attacks and a prolonged episode of severe depression as he copes with feelings of guilt and loss. Mental illness affects everyone differently, but plenty of viewers will find their own story reflected back through Mescal’s incredible performance.

The show captures how depression often manifests in a complete loss of energy, with Connell appearing completely disengaged at school, unable to sit up or make eye contact while his then-girlfriend Helen (Aoife Hinds) breaks up with him. The accompanying panic attacks are just as physically draining, but in shorter bursts. His behavior concerns his roommate Niall (Desmond Eastwood) enough that Niall encourages him to seek therapy, saying, “It’s free, so you might as well.”

“Normal People”doesn’t sugarcoat, but neither does it exaggerate. So often when mental health is portrayed on TV, it’s portrayed as either intractable or a problem with a clear solution. Connell’s progress is rightfully shown to be gradual, even with the help of medication, and he hesitates to make big life decisions months later like moving to New York, based on the fear it will cause his depression and panic attacks to return.

Well acquainted with depression and anxiety attacks in my own life, I found it difficult to watch some scenes, like when Connell admits to his therapist that he has trouble connecting with people or adjusting to new environments. That feeling of helplessness is all encompassing and more common than people realize. It’s also valuable that “Normal People” focuses on Connell’s vulnerability; talking through the feelings of numbness and grief is a key component in his ability to move forward.

For every “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “This Is Us” — both of which have shown the complexity of mental illness thoughtfully — there’s a “13 Reasons Why” that misses the mark by oversimplifying depression and sensationalizing suicide. Unfortunately, the negative portrayals carry even more weight because portrayals of any kind are so rare. A 2019 University of Southern California media study showed that less than 1 percent of TV characters are portrayed as experiencing any form of mood disorder (e.g. depression).

In recent years there’s been an admirable, but often hollow, shift in how American culture talks about mental health. We ask people to “seek help and reach out,” but it’s rarely that simple. Even if you have the best health insurance in the United States, it can take months to find a therapist or psychiatrist that’s in your network. Through Connell’s brief conversation with his roommate encouraging him to seek help, “Normal People” chooses to emphasize that Connell’s therapy was free and easy to access in Dublin, a choice that shouldn’t be overlooked.

At its center, “Normal People” is a love story — an exploration of how caring for someone and growing with them can help you grow yourself. Mental health doesn’t exist in a silo. The issues one person faces impact those around them, and a support system is crucial. “Normal People” isn’t necessarily here to make viewers feel happier, but it should provide some much-needed reassurance that it’s OK to not feel OK.