It doesn’t seem fair to compare Conversations with Friends with the runaway success that was Normal People in a review.
Yes, they are both limited series based on Sally Rooney novels about young, complicated lovers in Ireland. But Normal People was released at the height of the pandemic, when there was so much unknown and people were slowly coming around to the idea that life had forever changed. Those anxieties were easy to map onto Marianne and Connell’s messy on-and-off relationship, where mental health struggles and social differences undercut their undeniable connection. People may have tuned in for the series’ famously explicit sex scenes, but they stayed for its compelling insights into relationships, and Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal’s star-making performances.
That is a lot to live up to, and it’s easy to empathize with Conversations with Friends’ awkward position following such an era-defining hit. Unfortunately for the series, empathy only goes so far.
In Conversations with Friends, Frances (Alison Oliver) is a college student living in Dublin. She performs spoken-word poetry with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi (Sasha Lane). One night, the girls meet Melissa (Jemima Kirke of Girls fame), a well-respected author and essayist who takes a liking to their work. Melissa invites Frances and Bobbi into her world, introducing them to her actor husband Nick (Joe Alwyn). Frances and Nick quickly form a connection and begin an affair. Their relationship is complicated by many forces, like Nick and Melissa’s unconventional marriage and Frances’ unwillingness to open up to Bobbi about Nick.
Frances and Nick’s affair should be a messy yet engrossing look at monogamy’s place in modern society. To get to that point, we have to actually care about the characters involved. Conversations with Friends struggles to make a case for the audience caring about its main characters. None of them are appealing, ranging from inoffensive to exhausting to watch. Frances’ point of view frames the series, but she feels unknowable beyond a list of facts. (She is a bisexual communist writer with a tenuous financial situation.) The show tells us through other characters that she is awkward or comes off cold, but that shouldn’t be our relationship with her. If we can’t connect to Frances on some level, then what is this all for?
Perhaps Frances is distant until she meets Nick for the first time? Maybe his enigmatic personality draws her in and sets her on fire? Not exactly. Nick is enigmatic, and that’s it. That is his defining trait, alongside being attractive. He doesn’t convey anything that explains why he draws Frances in. He doesn’t express some deep interest in her poetry, nor does she in his acting. All they have in common is that, as they put it after they first sleep together, they’re awkward. That is a connection to potentially wreck a marriage over? Their relationship isn’t even a matter of convenience, or some act of revenge against Melissa’s past affairs. Their relationship bears no weight; it’s barely even a relationship.
The utter lack of investment in Frances and Nick’s “whatever you want to call it”-ship makes Conversations with Friends a slog to get through. The writers could’ve told the story in six episodes or less. Instead, it drags us through endless trenches of miscommunication, repression, and self-absorption that is too dull to be mad about. The series’ first half meanders, robbing even Croatia’s beautiful coastline of wonder or emotional resonance.
The second half is stronger, offering clarity into character histories and motivations that would’ve been helpful in the second or third episodes. In these episodes, the series explores the impact of physical and mental health on relationships. Normal People brilliantly unpacked Connell’s depression, and while Conversations with Friends doesn’t reach that height, it does offer frank discussions about female reproductive health and men’s mental health that feel new and especially vital in the United States. It almost equates to a reason for existing that the series previously didn’t have. Unfortunately, that last-minute burst of purpose peters out, as the final episode makes narrative choices I can only assume make more sense in the book than it does on screen.
Conversations with Friends’ writing and pacing does its principal cast no favors. At first glance, Frances and Nick’s flatness looks like the fault of Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn. While they generate sparks in their love scenes, neither have a compelling screen presence to explain their characters’s mutual attraction. However, when the series hits its midpoint, Alwyn and Oliver receive material that allows them to act out something other than rank stoicism. Both of them flourish with the expanded emotional palette. Jemima Kirke is the only actor who delivers a fully-realized and engaging character throughout the series. She overrides the writers’ indecision of where Melissa fits into this world by being intriguing in every interaction. She pulls focus every chance she gets, making us miss her when she’s not on screen.
Even without Normal People as a point of comparison, Conversations with Friends doesn’t quite work. The series is firmly stuck in its own head, unable to extend a welcoming hand to the audience until it’s well too late. It’s a disappointment on its own merits. As a follow-up to Normal People, it’s perilously close to failure.
Conversations with Friends is currently streaming on Hulu.
[Also published on Geek Vibes Nation]