My inability to read in recent months has meant that I’ve been watching more television, which is to say, some television. The big streaming services offer too much choice. I find myself browsing without committing to anything, then giving up and doing something else. Is there such a thing as a slow-release feature, which would parcel out episodes of older series weekly? What I miss is anticipation. I need something to look forward to as I watch people in other countries return to recognizable daily life, while answers to the big questions – when will the kids be able to return to school? Will I ever have time for myself, by myself, again? – remain stubbornly airborne.
The best of what I watched this spring was unquestionably the ongoing adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Last year in Denmark I had a subscription to HBO Nordic and was excited to watch the first season, but the Italian was subtitled only in Scandinavian languages: crushing. With the money I’m saving on daycare fees (sob) I splurged on a new subscription in March. Watching the first season, and then the second (weekly, upon release – anticipation!) was such a tonic. The story is so ably handled, the casting ideal, the dialect perceptible even to my untrained monoglot ear. The colour palette transitions gradually from grim postwar grey to the more vibrant sixties (Lila’s pink kitchen, the azure waters off Ischia). The clothes are period-perfect, all those visibly itchy woollens, boxy suits, and sloppy housedresses. I visited Naples and the Amalfi Coast in March of last year, and was struck by the slovenly beauty of the place, its proud decay, its terrifying roads hugging sublime cliffs, and of course the spectre of Vesuvius looming in the background like a giant unreal postcard. The trip gave me a much more accurate visual index for the books. Whatever your opinion of the Neapolitan novels, the show is worth watching as the best kind of supplement.
Then I watched Fleabag. Maybe I missed the zeitgeist, or read too many spoilers in the wake of its extensive prizewinning streak, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the internet promised I would. The failure is probably mine: I don’t find bad decisions funny, even when my pathos button is being mashed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s smart black ballet flats. I can’t, for example, watch Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I can’t abide a trainwreck, even a cheeky one, and Fleabag is a full derailment.
Finally, in early May, when it seemed that it would be always winter and never Christmas, I watched BBC Three’s adaptation of Normal People. I read both Sally Rooney’s novels two years ago, and was mostly bored by them. I agree with Rohan Maitzen’s assessment of Rooney’s style: “spare” does not necessarily mean accomplished, or compelling. I read a different review describing her prose as screenplay-like, and it does feel like stage direction, the relentless rearranging of actors and a strange focus on the props. More than that, though, I felt too impatient with the book to become at all invested in Marianne and Connell, or their endless emails. There’s been much discussion about Rooney being the first great millennial novelist. I was born in 1984, making me one of the oldest millennials, and perhaps an atypical one: though the beginnings of my career were scuppered by the 2008 recession, I married at 23 (with apologies to my horrified mother) in the midst of graduate studies, had my first child at 26, and became a homeowner at 27. I’ve never lived in my parents’ basements, but they’ve lived in mine. All this is to say that I felt life had carried me too far beyond the vicissitudes of awkward young love to seek it out as a preferred narrative. Give me a full-fledged adult woman who knows exactly what she wants; give me someone who’s been partnered a long time and needs to make a change, an Anna Karenina or a Fru Bagge, someone with a complex, messy past to sift through.
But I watched Normal People anyway, and was knocked sideways by it despite being a greying Old Millennial – older than the actress who plays Connell’s mother, which made me feel even older, and also slightly perverted. The adaptation is gorgeously shot, those long northern-hemisphere evenings with their slant light exploited for all they’re worth. Sometimes the camera dances nervously around, watching light playing on a wall; at other times the leads fall out of the frame. The instrumental music is hesitant, atmospheric, but the soundtrack is also peppered with jams. (On this note: would TV music people please consider a temporary ban of Max Richter? He’s fine, but I think there are one or two others who’d appreciate the paycheque.)
Much has been made of the show’s intimacy coordination, but that’s because it generally works, and the chemistry between the leads is, well, powerful. Watching Connell and Marianne fumble gently through their first sexual encounters took me back. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the thrill of the unknown, of – again! – anticipation, but I remembered all at once, and was verklempt. There is so much trauma on television that it’s possible to forget that sex can be depicted as consensual, pleasurable, loving, silly, even fun. But what the show also underlines is that physical intimacy is not the only kind, that talking about one’s feelings demands a different sort of baring. Everything in the show is “obvious” or “literal,” except when it isn’t, and the development of the leads into adults capable of other intimacies is the point.
When I finished the show I felt compelled to spend several days listening exclusively to Phoebe Bridgers and her occasional band boygenius, like a teenager in a thirtysomething’s body, but it’s almost out of my system now, just in time for the end of the “school” year and the beginning of “summer vacation.” At least the public library is open for pickup soon.