Pleasantly sullen but deafened by a fault, Conversations with friends is too meandering to really understand. Not that it’s a show’s responsibility to be “understandable,” but the audience does owe some level of engagement. All too often, however, the 12-episode drama positively pushes you away. This may or may not be deliberately designed to mimic the behavior his characters display towards each other.
Essentially a spiritual sequel to Normal People, one of the biggest sleeper hits of the pandemic era, Conversations with Friends is the second TV adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel. It retains the same core creative team from the previous show; Lenny Abrahamson is the lead director, with Alice Birch writing most of the episodes. Even the title treatment is virtually the same.
Obviously, the new series is meant to capitalize on the success of the first, but instead of correcting some of Normal People’s most frustrating problems – the series’ fundamental impracticality was always in conflict with its aspirations for emotional greatness – Conversations with Friends double on their. He dances to his own music, but suffers from severe second album syndrome.
Newcomer Alison Oliver plays reserved student Frances Flynn, who affects a persona that alternates between mildly mysterious and outwardly arrogant. It changes more based on your enjoyment of the show than anything Oliver does with his performance. Like with normal people, there are times when you want to physically reach up to the screen and give these characters a good jolt. But unlike that show, which at least tapped into the undeniable chemistry of stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, Frances’ on-and-off fling with the equally enigmatic Nick Conway (played by Mr. Taylor Swift himself, Joe Alwyn ) has the emotional intensity of two seniors having a Sunday brunch.
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For my life, I still can’t read Nick. It’s true that he and Frances are cursed with a crippling lack of expressiveness. They are terribly inarticulate, which is often the reason for their conflicts. To communicate effectively, they instead rely on their respective art forms. Frances is an attention-grabbing spoken word poet, along with her former lover Bobbi (Sasha Lane), from famed writer Melissa Baines (Jemima Kirke). Nick is Melissa’s (relatively) underachieving husband. There’s a bit of meta-casting on the nose here.
When Nick and Frances begin an illicit affair, the feeling is that finally, after who knows how many years, they feel seen and heard. Not much is said between them – they even struggle to make eye contact at first – but they are kindred spirits, caught up in a doomed romance. For example, Bobbi doesn’t understand the legitimacy of Frances’ feelings for Nick, when she drawls, “Do you really rank our relationship below your passing sexual interest in a cis-het married man? ?
Like so many students who have only recently experienced a social and cultural awakening, Bobbi is terrible company. Frances also has an air of superiority; she definitely considers herself smarter than the scum she hangs out with and is visibly outmatched by the far more outgoing Bobbi. In Nick, she sees not just an attractive man who represents the kind of sophistication she craves, but an intellectual equal.
Ironically, however, she finds her agency stolen even more as their affair turns into true love. She waits for him – apparently the older, adult man – to take control of the situation. She clings to his every word, desperately waits for his texts, and finally submits to his wishes. Every beginning and every end of their relationship is dictated by him.
When Nick refuses to verbally reciprocate but continues to lead her, she experiences terrible menstrual cramps. It’s in these scenes that Conversation with Friends almost feels like a David Cronenberg body horror movie, and while the correlation between Frances’ emotional and psychological torment is quite literal, it feels sanitized and superficial – an allegory, not a real side effect of his deepest insecurities coming true.
Conversations with Friends ultimately emerges as a Boomer’s misunderstanding of the millennial experience. And that’s tragic, because that way it leans into all the criticism that the older generation has with us, without having a clue what we’re going through. At times, it really feels like the show is making fun of Frances.
To be a millennial is to be sensitive to the feelings of others, but deeply anxious about our own; it is to be acutely aware of the problems plaguing the world, but ill-equipped to do anything about them. We judge, but condescend to those who judge others. We are idealists, but deeply pragmatic. This is the conflict of our existence; the cause of our disappointment. Both of Rooney’s stories tap into these ideas through the prism of the most universal of all genres: romance.
But perhaps the show needed a fire in its belly to offset the outward coolness of its protagonists.
Conversations with friends
Directors – Lenny Abrahamson, Leanne Welham
Cast – Alison Oliver, Joe Alwyn, Sasha Lane, Jemima Kirke
Evaluation – 2/5