Don’t Boycott Sally Rooney’s Wonderful ‘Normal People’ on Israeli TV

The pro-BDS author’s ‘Normal People’ is available now on Cellcom tv – and you should definitely watch it. Plus, Showtime’s excellent ‘Yellowjackets’ arrives on Yes

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Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell in "Normal People."
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell in "Normal People."Credit: Courtesy of Yes
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

There’s a lovely scene in Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” – both the original book and the TV adaptation – where our young protagonists, Connell and Marianne, are sparring over her current boyfriend’s decision to invite a neo-Nazi to speak at Trinity College Dublin. In the book, Connell’s “liking” of several Facebook comments calling for the invite to be rescinded is described as “probably the most strident political action he has ever taken in his life.”

It was impossible not to recall that scene when the news broke this autumn that the 30-year-old Irish novelist had decided not to let her third novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” be published in Israel – scoring the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement its most high-profile victory in quite some time.

Despite divestments by multibillion-dollar Norwegian investment funds having a far greater impact on Israeli firms, they are deemed much less newsworthy than when popular authors or musicians bow to pressure from the BDS lobby and renounce Israel for all its sins.

This is a TV column and not a political op-ed so I’ll restrict my thoughts on BDS to this: Forgive me for not taking seriously any group whose entire ethos appears to be “Stop the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians! Start the ethnic cleansing of Jews!”

(Full disclosure: I am a citizen of both Ireland and Israel – and the U.K., but now I’m starting to feel a little greedy – was raised Catholic and have Jewish children, and am frequently depressed by the amount of antisemitism I see spouted by Irish people who see Israel as the world’s greatest evil, and Jews as “Jesus killers.” I haven’t been this discouraged about my other homeland since I used to frequent Irish pubs of north London in the 1990s and would hear Republican supporters shaking tins and asking patrons to “Support the cause!” Forgive me if this was actually “Support the Corrs!” and was genuine concern for the band when their music career declined.)

Rooney subsequently declared that she didn’t have a problem with her novel being translated into Hebrew, just that she didn’t want it published in Israel – which seems akin to a Frenchman saying he doesn’t have any issue with fish ‘n chips being made, just as long as none are sold to the English.

Perhaps someone should have told Rooney that many Israelis prefer to read English books in the original language anyway. Maybe she’d discover that and a whole lot more if she came over for a book tour of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah – though she may wish to skip Gaza, whose rulers aren’t exactly noted for their love of novelists or female voices.

After Rooney confirmed her decision in October, some Israeli booksellers made the idiotic move of removing her first two books (“Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends”) from their shelves – thus depriving some horny teenager in Holon of the literary world’s 21st-century equivalent of Jackie Collins or Judith Krantz, albeit with a lot more rain, verdant landscapes, college libraries and carb-based diets.

That Israeli response was probably the most depressing thing about the whole affair: To respond to an ideologically driven cultural boycott with a cultural boycott of your own is just pettiness writ large – even if the author’s own move is horribly undermined by the list of countries she is willing to be published in. You know, those states where conversations with friends are most likely to land you in a cell if you say the wrong thing about the “dear leader.”

That’s why I was delighted to see that Cellcom tv has just started showing the 12-part adaptation of “Normal People” – although it’s only eight parts if you skip all of the sex scenes and bits where Connell looks sad. (The show is also available on Yes and Hot VOD, after it first aired on the BBC and Hulu last year.)

Marianne and her mother in a scene from Sally Rooney's "Normal People." Credit: Courtesy of Yes

Dark places

If you haven’t seen the series yet, I wholeheartedly recommend it as a beautiful coming-of-age drama about two soulmates whose relationship can blossom only if they manage to love and accept themselves as well. Youngsters watching should be aware that this is not a YA tale, though, and the story goes to some very dark places – and I don’t just mean Sweden.

There’s also the small matter of a class divide wider than the Irish Sea, one that working-class Connell (Paul Mescal) is painfully aware of but Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is conveniently oblivious to – given that she comes from money and his single mom (Sarah Greene) works as the cleaner at her mansion.

Rooney’s Marxist politics are hardly left at the front door of said mansion, with the wealthy portrayed as cold, heatless, messed-up and – of course – bad payers, while the salt-of-the-earth poor are straight out of a Ken Loach movie, God bless ’em one and all.

But what the writer absolutely nails – she co-wrote most of the adaptation with Alice Birch, who is also working on the upcoming TV version of “Conversions with Friends” – is the emotional turmoil of her ruddy-cheeked Romeo and Juliet, a young couple whose Plato-esque connection, physically and emotionally, is depicted with much tenderness and sensitivity.

It is also no coincidence that the first half of the series is directed by a man (Lenny Abrahamson) and the second by a woman (Hettie Macdonald), drawing obvious questions about the “male” and “female” gaze given the amount of bedroom activity.

Yes, there were times when I wanted to bash the young couple’s heads together and tell them to stop creating artificial reasons to break up – I know, can you believe an “Agony Uncle” column still continues to elude me despite such empathetic skills?

However, I never doubted the authenticity of the lead characters, even though the actors playing them were clearly much too old to ever convince as uniform-clad schoolkids in the initial episodes.

I laughed. I cried. I also reread the book, marveling at Rooney’s ability to write such sparkling dialogue without recourse to a single quotation mark (unlike James Joyce and his famous en dashes, she doesn’t need any punctuation for dialogue that practically leapt off the page and straight into the screenplay).

I can’t wait to see the upcoming adaptation of “Conversations with Friends,” although it will be very fortunate if it finds two young leads as captivating and appealing as Edgar-Jones and Mescal.

And if Rooney is looking for an Israeli publisher who is actively fighting the occupation and ardently believes, like some old romantic fool, in the two-state solution, I’m sure I can put her in touch with someone at Haaretz who can help.

Irish novelist Sally Rooney in 2018 after winning a literary award for "Normal People."Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS

‘Yellowjackets’ (Yes)

Is 2021 the year in which series with the worst-sounding titles turn out to be the best shows? I mean, “Mare of Easttown,” “The White Lotus” and “Squid Game” didn’t exactly scream “Watch this!” And now you can add Showtime’s excellent new series “Yellowjackets” to that list.

This one is not about protesting Frenchmen – apologies for the tautology there – but is one of the most intriguing original concepts I’ve seen in a while.

I should clarify that when I say “original,” I mean something that was concocted from scratch and not adapted from a novel, comic book, podcast, etc. The truth is that you will find lots of references to other TV shows or films in this series: from “Alive” and “Blair Witch Project,” with its crashed plane and creepy woodland setting, to “I Know What You Did Last Summer”/“Pretty Little Liars” and “Lost,” with the latter’s genius use of flashbacks.

However, the main inspiration is something that I seem to be increasingly referring to in this column: William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” – and hence, presumably, the reference to the yellowjacket wasp in the main promo shot for the series.

Some of the surviving yellowjackets after their plane crashed in remote woodlands, in the Showtime series "Yellowjackets." Credit: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

Like Golding’s ’50s classic, “Yellowjackets” maroons a group of teenagers and swiftly desocializes them, except this time they’re overwhelmingly female – which in itself isn’t that radical as Amazon Prime already did something similar with “The Wilds” last year. But “Yellowjackets” is smarter, more complex and wittier (prime example: “I once saw him get outsmarted by an escalator”).

The elevator pitch for the show is kindly provided early on by New Jersey housewife Shauna, who tells a snooping reporter: “I know what you want to hear. But the truth is the plane crashed, a bunch of my friends died and the rest of us starved and scavenged and prayed for 19 months, until they finally found us.”

She’s referring to a private jet that crashed in (unidentified) remote woodlands in 1996 while it was taking a team of female high-school soccer players (the eponymous “yellowjackets”) to compete in nationals.

The series flips between the group’s efforts to survive as they await rescue in the wilds and the present-day, as a small group of survivors investigates who’s sending them a postcard featuring a Wiccan-esque symbol that recalls every single horror movie you’ve ever seen set in nature.

It’s to the show’s credit that it avoids any dueling banjos à la “Deliverance,” and even more to its credit that it features the likes of Liz Phair, Hole and P.J. Harvey on a female-centric soundtrack that perfectly captures the mid-’90s.

Three things need to work for this kind of show to succeed. First, the modern-day characters and their situation need to be engaging and plausible, so we want to spend as much time with them as their younger selves in the more dramatic location.

Check – especially Taissa, who has reneged on a deal the survivors made to “stay out of the public eye” and is running for state senator, earning the nickname “the queer Kamala” and drawing nudge-nudge campaign attack ads accusing her of “cannibalizing tax dollars”; Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), who picked up a survival tip or two in those woods, and was also carrying plenty of extra emotional baggage when she got on that plane back in the ‘90s; and, best of all, Natalie, a fresh-out-of-rehab survivor played by Juliette Lewis (I leave this space free for you to add your own snarky comment).

Juliette Lewis as Natalie in Showtime's "Yellowjackets."Credit: Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

There’s only one character I struggled with, Christina Ricci’s Misty, who feels a little too much like a knowingly crafted sad-sack singleton to quite ring true, especially given her somewhat convenient hobby of citizen detective.

Second, the large group of teenage girls need to be distinctive characters. Check, even if it may take you a few episodes to sort out your Lotties from your Laura Lees.

And thirdly, the mystery of what exactly happened during those 19 months in the woods needs to be teased out slowly and convincingly, whether it involves matters supernatural (as seems likely) or is of a more down-to-earth nature.

Christina Ricci as Misty in Showtime's "Yellowjackets."Credit: Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

Four episodes in, I’m totally hooked. “Go yellowjackets!” Or as Sally Rooney might put it, go yellowjackets.

“Normal People” is available to download on Cellcom tv and is still on Yes and Hot VOD. “Yellowjackets” is on Yes VOD from Wednesday and Yes TV Drama from December 23.

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