Though told with nuance and complexity, Normal People is, at its core, a simple story. This may be why the novel was the first of Sally Rooney’s to receive a screen adaptation, despite coming second on the Irish author’s CV. Rooney specializes in characters of blazing intellect and inscrutable emotions, even to themselves. Normal People’s protagonists fit this bill, but they also followed a familiar boy-meets-girl archetype, a straightforward vehicle for a complex pair of personalities. Perhaps relatedly, the book is Rooney’s most commercially successful to date. The TV show, too, achieved breakout success, powered by two star-making performances and an intimacy that countered the isolation of early lockdown.
That success was enough to earn a series order for Conversations With Friends, another 12-episode co-production between the BBC and Hulu. But Conversations, based on Rooney’s 2017 debut of the same name, is a less intuitive fit for TV than its predecessor (or successor, if one goes by publication date). Normal People has the sweep of an epic romance, plus the physicality to make an instant heartthrob of Paul Mescal, which offsets the characters’ more cerebral tendencies. Conversations With Friends tracks an unsteady love quadrangle, one that doesn’t map neatly onto conventional romantic arcs and often plays out via email or text.
The two productions do have significant overlap in their creative teams, ensuring at least a baseline of commonality. Irish company Element Pictures serves as the production company, while writer Alice Birch and director Lenny Abrahamson also return, the latter as an executive producer. There is, however, one prominent absence: Rooney herself, who co-wrote the first half of the Normal People series with Birch. Nevertheless, Birch, Abrahamson, and newcomers like playwright Meadhbh McHugh strive to maintain Normal People’s quiet naturalism. They’re also quite faithful to their new source material—sometimes to a fault.
Conversations With Friends starts from a similar place as Normal People, though it soon veers in a different direction. Like Marianne and Connell of the latter, Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) are students at Trinity College in Dublin—Rooney’s alma mater—whose bond walks the line between romance and friendship. Headed into their final year of school, the young women no longer date, but Bobbi does serve as Frances’s muse for the spoken word poetry they perform at a local venue. One night, they attract the notice of older writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke), who introduces them to her husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), a journeyman actor.
Over the ensuing months, these two pairs assume a host of ever-shifting arrangements. Nick and Frances develop a mutual attraction, which is of course complicated by his marriage to Melissa—but also her shared history with Bobbi, who was previously her only serious relationship to date. Shy and withdrawn, Frances describes a skewed power dynamic with the outgoing, gregarious Bobbi. “I wasn’t popular, but she chose me anyway,” she explains. “Sort of changed my life, now that I think about it.” A clandestine affair with an older man threatens to upset that dynamic, though neither Frances nor Bobbi seem to be entirely honest about their own motivations. Frances says she doesn’t know why she didn’t tell Bobbi about the affair at its onset, while Bobbi claims she’s only upset that Frances didn’t share her secret. Neither is especially convincing.
This mixture of sex, youth, envy, and resentment may seem volatile. (Nor does it run in just one direction; Bobbi looks up to Melissa, while Melissa admires Frances’s fresh talent, while the left-leaning Frances bristles at the idea of commodifying her art.) But Conversations With Friends is no melodrama, refusing to traffic in explicit statements or loud confrontation. The presence of digital technology only magnifies this quality. True to Rooney’s reputation as the ultimate millennial author, virtual communication forms the backbone of the story. Scenes frequently end on the rather undramatic note of a character receiving a text message or downloading an app. The show makes some effort to mitigate this obstacle, frequently employing voice-overs that bring two-dimensional text to life. But these interludes are only a partial workaround for a more fundamental problem: that one of the plot’s primary engines is inherently uncinematic. Critics received one unfinished episode where all screens were left blank; it was virtually incomprehensible.
For actors, the relatively sparse nature of Rooney’s prose—heavy on dialogue and action, light on internal explication—presents both a challenge and an opportunity. (This quality is also what makes the books so adaptable into screenplays; they often read like one already.) On the page, there’s not much indication of what characters other than Frances, who narrates, are truly thinking. That leaves a lot of gaps for the performance to fill in, a blank slate some cast members take more advantage of than others.
Oliver, a screen newcomer like Mescal was, embodies her role’s mix of youthful naivete and firm self-possession; Lane, on the other hand, feels forced and stiff despite keeping her native accent, a disappointing about-face from her turn in films like American Honey. As a hip, British bohemian, Kirke is effective if not surprising, all but reprising her time on Girls. Alwyn, in his first leading role since his debut in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, rises to the occasion. His Nick is a man surprised at the depths of his own sensitivity, implicitly bonding with Frances over being the less extroverted half of their respective couples. (Though as the less famous half of a beautiful, blond power couple, Alwyn is hardly a stretch; despite appearing in films like The Favourite, he’s arguably best known as the longtime partner of Taylor Swift.)
Conversations With Friends lets these performances play out at length: six full hours, equaling the length of Normal People but exceeding the increasingly short episode orders to which viewers have grown accustomed. In its allergy to conventional beats or even closure, Conversations is admirable in its convictions, yet often aimless in practice. The show drifts from one tense exchange to the next, with a whole that ends up less than the sum of its often intriguing parts. Frances and Bobbi have youth as an excuse for their questionable decisions; that Melissa and Nick end up similarly opaque suggests the foursome has grown knotted so tight they’re illegible to outsiders. Individual scenes can be passionate or tense. Still, they never quite weave together into a comprehensive group portrait.
Despite its shortcomings, the show feels more flawed in concept than execution. Conversations With Friends is an inherently harder sell than Normal People, a cultural lightning bolt that’s predictably loath to strike twice. Conversations isn’t without its charms, from Oliver and Alwyn’s effective use of the spotlight to the simple pleasures of watching pretty people walk around to a stylish soundtrack. The plot is just hard to package in a way that makes sense for a mass audience, though it’s hardly surprising a series based on a literary novel seems destined for niche appeal. It’s Normal People that was the exception; Conversations With Friends is a reversion to the norm.