It’s very obvious what the makers of Conversations with Friends are hoping will happen with it. The new drama is Hulu’s second limited series adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel and is coming just a little over two years after Normal People, which was based on Rooney’s beloved 2018 book of the same name, premiered and became an instant hit for the streaming service.
That series made stars out of its two relatively unknown leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, and it earned some well-deserved acclaim for being one of the more intimate, earnest, and emotionally insightful TV dramas of the past few years. The fact that Normal People premiered in April of 2020, a time when many were starving for the kind of intimacy and connection that it explored, only helped it connect even more deeply and widely than it might have had it debuted under different circumstances.
Now, several years later, Hulu and the BBC have reteamed with several of the creative minds behind Normal People for Conversations with Friends. The two shows look and feel very similar, and the latter seemingly offers many of the narrative same pleasures as Normal People. Unfortunately, Conversations with Friends ultimately fails to recapture the magic of Hulu’s previous Rooney adaptation.
Based on Sally Rooney’s debut 2017 novel, Conversations with Friends follows Frances (Alison Oliver), a student at a Dublin college who spends some of her free time performing her spoken word poetry with her best friend, Bobbi (Sasha Lane), who also happens to be her ex-girlfriend. One night, after performing together in a local bar, Frances and Bobbi find themselves engaged in a conversation with Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a famous author.
Their meeting leads to the three women eventually meeting up again at Melissa’s house. It’s there that Frances first meets Nick (Joe Alwyn), Melissa’s actor husband. Frances feels instantly drawn to Nick and it doesn’t take long for it to become clear that the attraction is mutual. While Bobbi is open about her attraction to Melissa, Frances struggles to keep her feelings for Nick secret — a task that becomes even more difficult after the two begin an affair.
Despite featuring four potential lead characters, Conversations with Friends is primarily concerned with exploring Frances and Nick’s passionate romance. However, while Normal People often benefitted from taking the time to show the lives of both of its leads, Conversations with Friends tells nearly all of its story from Frances’ point of view. The series’ limited scope leads to many of its biggest issues — namely, its bloated structure and lethargic pace — and Frances’ story ultimately doesn’t feel substantial enough to warrant dedicating 12 episodes to it.
As Frances, Oliver makes a compelling and quietly magnetic screen figure. She navigates and communicates all of Frances’ many conflicting emotions well throughout Conversations with Friends’ 12 episodes, and makes her character’s occasional emotional spirals feel devastatingly real. That said, Frances is too interior and self-obsessed to be the show’s constant center of attention. What’s worse is that Frances’ affair with Nick, which is what Conversations with Friends spends most of its time exploring, is the least interesting aspect of her story.
That’s not to say that the passion Nick and Frances feel about each other isn’t palpable, as Oliver and Alwyn do have strong screen chemistry together. The two never quite match the heat that was present between Mescal and Edgar-Jones in Normal People, but there’s enough there to imbue, initially at least, the pair’s many love scenes with an extra layer of longing and passion. Outside of their carnal desires for each other though, Nick and Frances never make for a compelling pair.
Part of that is due to the show’s decision to bring them together as quickly as possible, but the series’ biggest problem is Nick, who feels paper-thin when he’s introduced and continues to feel frustratingly shallow throughout the entirety of Conversations with Friends. The series never provides a satisfying reason for why women like Melissa and Frances would fall so deeply in love with Nick, and Alwyn’s stiff performance fails to bring any new dimension to the character. In the end, his blandness leads to his and Frances’ affair losing its romantic tension somewhere around Conversations with Friends‘ midpoint.
For their parts, both Sasha Lane and Jemima Kirke turn in strong work as Bobbi and Melissa, two characters who are deeply underserved by the series. That’s true for many of the show’s supporting figures though, as its unrelenting focus on Frances’ self-obsessed perspective makes nearly everyone else in Conversations with Friends feel unwritten. Frances’ inability to see outside of herself becomes a major problem the more time goes on, and while the series does attempt to hold her accountable for her selfishness, its finale ultimately pulls its punches and stops short of actually making her understand the severity of her actions.
While Conversations with Friends largely fails to match Normal People’s romantic intensity and contemplative but propulsive pace, it does succeed at matching its predecessor’s soft, intimate aesthetic. Lenny Abrahamson and Leanne Welham share the directing duties on Conversations with Friends, and both filmmakers bring an intense visual intimacy to the series. A multi-episode trip to Croatia also produces several warmly lit nighttime sequences and sun-soaked daytime scenes — making it the section of the show that is undeniably its most visually pleasing.
In that sense, Conversations with Friends is largely successful as a stylistic exercise, and in the rare moments when it does expand its scope beyond Nick and Frances’ relationship, the series often manages to reach the same confrontational, complex emotional intensity that elevated Normal People into greatness. That’s especially true of the series’ sixth (and best) episode, which doesn’t feature a single appearance from Alwyn’s Nick and climaxes, instead, with a conversation between Oliver’s Frances and Lane’s Bobbi that ranks as the series’ most emotionally complicated and charged moment.
For devoted fans of Rooney’s work, those brief flashes of greatness may be enough to make Conversations with Friends feel like a worthwhile investment of their time. But there’s something decidedly tragic about the fact that the best episode of Conversations with Friends is also the one that is the least interested in the very love story it spends so much of its time exploring.
Conversations with Friends premieres Sunday, May 15 on Hulu. Digital Trends was given access to all 12 of its episodes.
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