'Conversations With Friends': Sally Rooney's First Novel Hits the Sophomore Slump on TV

'Conversations With Friends':  Sally Rooney's First Novel Hits the Sophomore Slump on TV

Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People was one of the very best TV shows of 2020 — an emotionally and sexually intimate knockout anchored by the fantastic performances of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. So expectations are naturally high for Hulu’s new Rooney adaptation, of her debut novel, Conversations With Friends.

The streamer is the same. The source material comes from the same author. And the two chief creative forces on Normal People other than Rooney herself — director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Alice Birch — are back in prominent roles again. A successful formula easily recreated to make another instant classic, right?

Unfortunately, things prove more complicated than putting the band back together. Conversations With Friends is not without its moments — many of them generated by the same stylistic approach that worked so well on Normal People — but the story feels much thinner, and not capable of supporting a dozen half-hour episodes.

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So, that story. The shy Frances (Alison Oliver) is a student at Trinity College in Dublin and a would-be poet. Her best friend is also her ex-girlfriend: Bobbi (Sasha Lane), a brash American who frequently teams with Frances to do live performances of Frances’ verse. One of their routines captures the attention of Melissa (Jemima Kirke from Girls), a successful author who invites the two young women into her home, where Frances catches the attention of Melissa’s unhappy actor husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), while Bobbi seems attracted to Melissa.

This is the setup for an extremely messy love quadrangle, but the show is primarily interested in only Frances’ corner of it. Though we hear about what other characters have done together, it is her perspective we stay in throughout. And it is her complicated feelings about Nick, Bobbi, her alcoholic father, and more that provide scaffolding for all the rest. Bobbi eventually accuses her of extreme narcissism — “I don’t think you think anyone else is real, Frances” — but the structure of Conversations With Friends supports her difficulty thinking of the feelings of others.

Oliver is wonderful, however, in her first screen role. Like Marianne and Connell from Normal People, Frances has great difficulty escaping her own head — “I overthink things sometimes,” she admits to Nick after a sexual encounter — and holds most of her pain close, rather than letting Bobbi or other people know about her struggles. That level of interiority requires high levels of both acting nuance and charisma to make understandable and interesting, and Oliver is never less than compelling on screen. (The other three actors are excellent as well, with Kirke in particular shining in what could be a thankless role as the aggrieved party in Frances and Nick’s affair.)

Abrahamson, meanwhile, brings the same dreamlike quality to the production that he did to Normal People. (He directs this season’s first half, with Leanne Welham handling the final six episodes.) Once again, the sex scenes present characters who seem genuinely aroused to be together — lots of audible breathing — rather than the sweaty, simulated lust of so many modern productions. And once again, the longing between characters is palpable through their expressions even more than through what they say to one another.

Despite the strong work by all in front of and behind the camera, though, the extreme focus on Frances feels better suited to a feature film version of this material, or at least to something substantially shorter than the six hours that Hulu is releasing at once. There are wonderful moments throughout, particularly in a finale that makes Frances reckon with the hurt she has caused everyone else. But those moments are sprinkled in among a lot of narrative flab. The same lingering quality that served Normal People so well here just makes everything seem slow and padded — perhaps because there is one central character rather than two, and her inner problems ultimately play as more straightforward than what Marianne and Connell were each wrestling with.

Second books can often fall victim to the sophomore slump phenomenon, where the author has put so much of themself into their first offering that there’s not enough inspiration left over for the follow-up. In this case, though, Birch, Abrahamson and company are using Rooney’s first novel, but everything that seemed so magical and easy in 2020 is more labored this time around.

Hulu is releasing the entire season of Conversations With Friends on May 15. I’ve seen all 12 episodes.

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