'Conversations With Friends' Review: This 'Normal People' Follow-Up Is Muted, Frustrating & Bloodless

Sally Rooney’s stories of deconstructed yearnings and anxious young adulthoods have been the talk of the literary scene since 2017, when the author’s debut, “Conversations With Friends,” was published to acclaim. Her second novel, Normal People,” was promptly turned into an angsty but well-acted Hulu miniseries led by captivating then-up-and-comers Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. Now, “Conversations With Friends” is finally getting the Hulu treatment, with the same “Normal People” writer/director, Oscar-nominee Lenny Abrahamson (“Room“), operating the ship as well, bringing Rooney’s characters’ beautiful longings to life on screen once again. Unfortunately, where “Normal People” was deliberate and introspective, “Conversations With Friends” is mostly sluggish and frustrating.

The story follows Frances (Alison Oliver), a young college student who conducts an affair with a married actor named Nick (Joe Alwyn). Meanwhile, Nick’s wife, author Melissa (Jemima Kirke), forms a bond with both Frances and her best friend and ex-lover Bobbi (Sasha Lane). The dramatic entanglements ebb and flow across twelve half-hour episodes, with the foursome frequently reconfiguring into different relationships and allegiances.

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On the page, this setup has all the trappings of a sensational melodrama, but in practice, it plays out like a drippily sad, muted story. Rooney’s works are quite internal and on-screen, which translates mostly to characters reading texts or sharing wordless glances. At different points, we learn that both Frances and Nick have often been defined by those around them by their passivity. Both also worry that they don’t emote enough, while they feel plenty of big feelings on the inside. None of these traits, it probably goes without saying, make for particularly compelling television.

“Conversations With Friends” pulls at similar thematic threads as “Normal People” did in 2020 and even shares most of the same creative team. But the earlier Rooney adaptation was anchored by two stunning performances, and unfortunately, this new project can’t claim the same. Oliver and Alwyn are both good enough actors, but they’re trapped in a lifeless story that makes their characters’ every exchange feel muted. Watching the central couple relate to one another, tripping awkwardly over their words no matter how many hours they’ve spent naked together, is like listening to someone trying to talk underwater. There’s also not heat between them so much as a sort of limp desperation. The show’s sex scenes are frequent but often pointless, clearly meant to build intimacy between the couple yet not interesting enough to help us understand why they’re drawn to one another in the first place.

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The more cyclical aspects of Rooney’s work also don’t translate well on screen this time around. Characters go through an exhausting process of break-ups and make-ups, punctuated by apology emails and frequent conversations about who’s angry with who. More often than not, the camera is simply fixed on Frances smiling or frowning at her phone as a text from Bobbi or Nick comes in. This is, of course, something we all do, but whereas shows like “The Girl From Plainville” find creative ways to signify the paradoxical closeness of text flirtations, “Conversations With Friends” leaves us on the outside looking in.

There’s more to the show’s plot than a simple love quadrangle. Frances is a writer who performs spoken word feminist poetry with Bobbi. Her parents are split up and her dad’s an aimless alcoholic who helps pay for her college. She also goes through a specific health scare of the sort that’s rarely shown on screen, and those scenes are conveyed with impressive realism. All of these details may have been meaningfully tied together in Rooney’s book, but on screen, they mostly feel disjointed and secondary to her relationship woes.

Naturalistic dramas deserve a place on television, and “Conversation With Friends” is admirable in its attempts to observe a realistic story without ascribing meaning to it. Yet too often, the result is a story that, instead of getting our hearts racing, feels like it’s in danger of flatlining. After certain beats play out repeatedly, the refreshing normalcy of the story circles back around to artifice: everyone seems designed to remain sad, beautiful, and artistic forever, like, well, characters in a book.

The series isn’t entirely a misfire. Sasha Lane is excellent as Bobbi, a slyly insufferable character who spends much of her screentime making Frances feel bad. The show doesn’t seem to realize quite how toxic their relationship is, or if it does, it makes no comment on it. Instead, we see the world through Frances’ eyes, and the world as she sees it is often defined by constantly feeling like you’ve done just the wrong thing. The show’s characterizations, while sometimes too flat, are nonetheless interesting.

The show’s direction, by Lenny Abrahamson and Leanne Welham, is artfully impressionistic and stirring enough, although it’s tempered somewhat by the show’s aggressively cloudy Dublin setting. The series’ editing is also more jagged and emotional than the show itself, and together the two elements pull off some of the heavy lifting that the pace and writing can’t carry. Oddly, though, the formal elements aren’t entirely cohesive: “Conversations With Friends” tries to pull off some strange and discordant needle drops, including, oddly, a dramatic cover of No Doubt’s “Just A Girl.”

If all its parts can be pulled into focus for the sake of finding some point, it might be said that “Conversations With Friends” is a study of all-encompassing wanting, and of wanting not to want. It’s a topic that can be fruitful, and the series attempts to explore all avenues of it–albeit mostly via angsty debriefs and loaded, silent looks. But wanting comes from the heart, and unfortunately, somewhere between the page and the screen, this story became bloodless. [C]