Sally Rooney fans were overjoyed when another one of the author’s painfully relatable odes to 20-something existence was adapted for television. Yet, the Hulu original series “Conversations with Friends” lacks the charisma and chemistry of “Normal People,” resulting in an off-kilter, emotionally awkward 12-episode arc that disappointedly leaves viewers wanting more.
“Conversations with Friends” follows quiet college student Frances (Alison Oliver) and her exuberant best friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane) as they develop a friendship with author Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and her husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn). The bulk of the plot revolves around the romanticized affair between Frances and Nick, which, throughout the entire series, becomes stiffly repetitive.
From the first episode, the dynamic between the pairs of characters wavers very little. Bobbi and Frances balance each other out the same way that Melissa and Nick do — introvert, meet extrovert. At a dinner party, Melissa and Bobbi seem to speak for their partners, and Bobbi, who has a little crush on Melissa, allows Melissa to direct the conversation.
The supposed complication of the show is that ex-lovers-now-best-friends Bobbi and Frances each harbor little affections for Melissa and Nick, respectively, and vice versa. Each friend flocks to the party they adore, cultivating separate friendships. Nick later reveals to Frances that Melissa has cheated on him repeatedly (right before their first sexual encounter; talk about setting the mood).
Yet, the characters’ blatant immaturity simply frustrates, particularly on the part of the married couple. Twenty-somethings are due for romantic struggles and miscommunications, making the small fights that erupt between Frances and Bobbi believable, if a bit difficult to watch. Yet, Melissa and Nick have no personal conversations; they do not seem to enjoy each other’s company.
Similarly dull, Bobbi and Frances’ conversations become one-note, with little tiffs that become repetitive early in the show, as Bobbi continues to be brash and Frances withdrawn. This oddly simplifies this headache of a love quadrangle, yet makes little sense in the larger, more composite scope of the show’s world.
Moreover, the affair between Frances and Nick — the focus of the show — is somehow unbelievable due to Oliver and Alwyn’s lack of an on-screen connection. While Alwyn looks great with a small grin and Oliver is a master of the horny glance, their attraction to each other seems to come out of nowhere. After a single conversation at the dinner party and a few texts, they suddenly throw themselves at each other in the second episode. Nick is also frustratingly succinct over text, almost evasive, and yet Frances pines and pines and pines.
Outside of her girlish crush on Nick, Frances is a much more promising character. The show expands upon her dynamic with her parents later in the show, finally giving needed depth to her character, and Oliver’s portrayal of Frances’ struggles with endometriosis also deserves applause. But it’s too little, too late. By this point, Frances has established herself as the oh-so-quirky awkward girl, seemingly with almost nothing on her mind except for Nick.
Occasionally, there is power in performances where nothing is said, and instead shown. In scenes with little dialogue, Frances and Nick’s desire for each other is palpable. Nick’s stares are charged; Frances’ face morphs into timid, flirty nervousness. Directorially, “Conversations with Friends” flourishes with intimacy. In every scene, the viewer feels as though they have been placed into a corner of the room, watching stolen moments and peeking into characters’ tumultuous lives.
This makes the smiles that grace Frances and Nick’s faces when they are alone together the most heartwarming in the show, especially when coupled with the honeyed score. Lovey-dovey scenes are shot through a soft golden-hour lens, while playful, light instrumentals underscore the experience of watching two people fall in love.
Still, pleasing filming cannot redeem the frustrations caused by Frances’ immaturity. Nick never holds her accountable; Bobbi does, but always takes Frances’ apologies at face value. By the end of the show, viewers are left unsure if anything has really been learned, as the series ends predictably and almost nothing feels resolved. Though Rooney attempts to offer psychological and philosophical insights, such efforts fail through the medium of Oliver and Alwyn’s flat affection.
Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected].