Hulu’s Series ‘Conversations with Friends’ (2022) Reviews – In the early months of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic kept us all inside and made us desire for sweet distraction, Hulu’s “Normal People” was one of the platform’s biggest hits. Following that success, Hulu and the BBC have greenlit and co-produced “Conversations With Friends,” a new adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel, to satisfy their audience’s need for sad, horny Irish people and melancholic ruminations on the nature of early love.
For what it’s worth, “Conversations With Friends” maintains the same sombre, introspective tone as its sister programme, even if its journey through the tangled complexity of modern romance is far more difficult (and, in spurts, less engaging).
— Conversations with Friends (@ConvosOnHulu) April 12, 2022
“Conversations With Friends,” based on Rooney’s first novel (Normal People was her second), returns us to Trinity College Dublin, this time with eternal wallflower Frances (Alison Oliver, a Lir Academy alumnus like “Normal People’s” Paul Mescal). She’s an aspiring writer from a low-income family, her parents are divorced, and her father is a low-functioning alcoholic who’d rather keep her distance from the world than risk being harmed by dealing with it.
Bobbi (Sasha Lane), her best friend, is a boisterous, outspoken American who dated Frances three years ago; they broke up amicably, but the phantom of their relationship lingers in their every interaction and combined spoken-word poetry they perform around Dublin.
But things get complicated for them both when Melissa (Jemima Kirke), an older writer who is captivated by them, approaches them at one of their gigs. She’s well-liked, settled, and married to dashing but gloomy actor Nick (Joe Alwyn).
Frances is immediately drawn to the latter, and before you can say, “We noticed you from across the bar and liked your vibe,” Frances and Nick are having an illicit affair that threatens to break both Melissa and Bobbi’s hearts.
The twelve half-hour episodes of “Conversations With Friends,” many of which are directed by “Normal People” director/EP Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”), have this as their central theme. In many ways, it feels like a rehash of the previous series’ clichés and philosophical issues.
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There’s the hot romance that has to be kept hidden for the sake of other people’s feelings; love scenes that feel sensitive and honest despite their participants’ forthright fumblings; and the ways personal fears can leak into how we treat others. Frances’ relationship with Nick is also her first with a guy (she’s bisexual); therefore it shares the other book’s preoccupation with the conflicting emotions of first love.
The main issue is the pace, which is a little too leisurely for what is, at its core, scarcely innovative material. We’ve seen the mechanics and rhythms of these kinds of stories before the lying, cheating, and narcissism involved in believing that their story will be unlike any other in history.
They meet up, sleep together, fret about what their friends/spouses think; rinse, repeat. Whereas “Normal People” explores the catastrophic effects of first monogamous love, “Conversations With Friends” plays with a power dynamic we’ve seen before a wealthy, married man having a flirtation with a young college student—in a way that doesn’t reveal many new aspects.
The drowsy performances aren’t helping matters either. Oliver is undeniably gifted, and she subtly layers more complexity into Frances’ narcissism, transforming her from an innocent doe to an emotional wrecking ball throughout the series. Frances’ finely calibrated shyness reflects Rooney’s frequent use of young Irish characters whose quietness hides a type of self-centered inaction.
“I don’t think you believe anyone else is real,” Bobbi shouts at her late in the series, and she’s not wrong; Frances embodies the way we’re all wrapped up in ourselves when we’re young, chasing feelings regardless of the repercussions, thanks to Oliver’s deeply honest portrayal. It’s a strong first performance, full of ecstatic pleasure and painful suffering (both emotional and physical, in the case of a recurring reproductive health issue that suddenly throws her fling into perspective).
However, her encounters with Alwyn (who typically operates with a murmured passivity) fizzle rather than flare, with conversation drifting past hushed Irish lilts with the volume of a stage whisper. (It doesn’t help that the majority of Nick’s true problems, such as depression and his marriage problems with Melissa, are stated to Frances rather than demonstrated.)
Kirke receives very little screen time as ‘the wife,’ except for a few of entertaining back-and-forths with Frances in the final quarter of the play. It falls short as a follow-up to Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones’ melancholy romance in “Normal People.”
Lane is the star here, with her Bobbi infusing a refreshing element of mayhem into the sea of Irish repression that surrounds her. She’s a boisterous feminist who has little respect for the patriarchy and men in general, and her animosity toward Nick is motivated as much by her possessiveness of Frances as it is by her disgust for his “boring,” ordinary life.
But her relationship with Oliver is dripping with unfulfilled longing, the kind of buzzing intensity that exists between ex-lovers who have decided to keep in touch. Unfortunately, in its last act, “Conversations With Friends” promises to become a lot more intriguing, as Nick and Frances’ covert tryst becomes a little less secret, and the show delves deeper into the ethics of nonmonogamy.
Nick desires Frances but wishes to remain married to Melanie; Melanie has already cheated and finds it difficult to ‘be okay’ with Frances’ presence. Bobbi enjoys flirting with Melissa, but she is devoted to Frances. The list continues on and on, and everyone’s heart is broken in one way or another before the titles roll.
The brilliance of Rooney’s stories resides in how they investigate the long-term effects of our early relationships, forging links that last long after the passion has ended. It’s a shame that “Conversations With Friends” only threatens to show us something fresh in the last three or four episodes after we’ve already endured four hours of its far-too-hazy presentation (Abrahamson’s directing is effective but obligatory) to get there.
Sure, there are as many bops on the soundtrack as there are in “Normal People” in fact, Phoebe Bridgers contributes a couple of tunes, including a new original called “sidelines.” However, this is the type of conversation where you generally tune out the other people at the table while waiting for your chance to talk.
— Conversations with Friends (@ConvosOnHulu) May 8, 2022
On Sunday, May 15th, 2022, the complete season of “Conversations With Friends” will premiere on Hulu. The entire series was screened for feedback.