On the most basic level, it makes sense that Hulu’s “Conversations With Friends” would try to echo what made its “Normal People” adaptation so successful. Once again enlisting director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Alice Birch, and once again starring a female actor (Alison Oliver) who resembles author Sally Rooney and a male one specifically poised to become a breakout thirst object (Joe Alwyn), “Conversations With Friends” follows the “Normal People” pattern so closely that it often feels more like a faded impression rather than its own series. In trying to replicate what made the “Normal People” adaptation work, with the same creative team to boot, this version of “Conversations With Friends” becomes strangely bland, as if leeched of all its flavor.
Rooney’s “Conversations With Friends” — her great first novel, about a college student whose relationship with a married man becomes all-consuming — bears similarities to her second (“Normal People”). Nevertheless, it tells an entirely different kind of story that should require a more tailored approach from an adaptation. Without that, or the crackling chemistry that pulsed throughout “Normal People,” this show’s 12 episodes (premiering all at once on May 15) meander hesitantly along until it finally just runs out of steam.
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The series’ most egregious mistakes are concentrated in its central romance. As written, the push and pull between college student Frances (Oliver) and older, married actor Nick (Alwyn) is too magnetic to resist. In the novel, their relationship first develops over email, where Frances and Nick, both more introverted than not, can feel freer to be themselves. Through words they can edit, and come back to look at whenever they want, the apparent gulf of years and experience between them seems to shrink. Both the age gap and the evolution of intimacy through email can be crucial building blocks of this kind of rapidly intense relationship, whether or not it eventually moves offscreen, as Nick and Frances’ does, to become something more physically concrete.
But as a show, “Conversation With Friends” doesn’t bother with any of this. Frances and Nick barely talk before they share their first kiss or even sleep together for the first time. From there on out, they sporadically text or talk on the phone, but their conversations mostly happen in person, in bed. It’s understandable that the series might try to find a way around a narrative device that could be tricky to film, though it doesn’t stop it from having Frances and her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi (Sasha Lane) read each other’s emails through voiceovers.
Quickly enough, however, the real problem presents itself and never truly goes away: Oliver and Alwyn simply don’t have the chemistry, sexual or otherwise, to pull off Frances and Nick’s supposedly overwhelming attraction to each other. While Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones made it all too easy to understand just how thick the tension was between their characters, Oliver and Alwyn can’t summon half the same intensity, which only makes Nick and Frances’ dynamic that much harder to believe.
And yet: while some of this does come down to Oliver and Alwyn, it’s ultimately not their fault that they were miscast and then tasked with acting through endless scenes of two withdrawn people exchanging glances. Alwyn’s generally a capable actor, and he lends his character some gravitas here with a lower rumble of an Irish voice. But he just doesn’t read as old enough to sell how many years are ostensibly between Nick and Frances, and there’s not much he can do to overcome that fact. Oliver similarly does her best to imbue Frances with some interiority, but can’t make up for the script’s overall inability to do the same.
The only moments when either Oliver or the show seem to understand who Frances is, in fact, are when Nick isn’t around. The back half of the series, in part directed by Leanne Welham and written by Meadhbh McHugh, expand the story beyond the oppressive loop of Nick and Frances’ relationship to show what her life looks like outside it. It even occasionally finds something more interesting to say about her fractured relationships with her mother (Justine Mitchell), father (Tommy Tiernan of “Derry Girls”), Bobbi, and her own mysteriously ailing body. But then she inevitably ends up back with Nick, and the air gets sucked back out of the room again.
Maybe the most telling part of Hulu’s “Conversations With Friends,” though, is how much more convincing it is when it edges the more extroverted characters of Bobbi and Melissa (Jemima Kirke), Nick’s writer wife, closer to the story’s center. For one, Lane and Kirke give the show’s best performances by a long shot. As Bobbi, a character who could easily become the cool girl cliché Frances sometimes sees her as, Lane paints a picture of a warm, sensitive, occasionally self-absorbed person who immediately feels more three-dimensional than Oliver’s Frances manages to be throughout much of the series. Kirke doesn’t get as much time as Lane to flesh out her character, but proves quickly enough that she doesn’t especially need it, anyway. In several key scenes, Kirke’s deft performance makes Melissa feel far more real than either Frances or Nick, lost in their blissful bubble of sex and validation, want to realize.
It’s also revealing that the scripts get sharper and more economical in illustrating who Bobbi and Melissa are than they routinely are with Nick and Frances. As “Normal People” did so well to give its reserved characters depth, it’s surprising to see how much “Conversations With Friends” struggles in this respect. It’s also damning, given who and what this story’s supposed to be about. at all.
“Conversations With Friends” will be available to stream Sunday, May 15 on Hulu.
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