The Pitch: In 2020, a Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel took the spring by storm. Beloved by critics and audiences alike, Normal People launched Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones into immediate stardom territory, and with good reason — the limited series was both tender and excruciatingly heavy; romantic and frustrating; hard to watch and impossible to turn off.
It only makes sense that Hulu would want to give it all another go with Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends. This story follows introverted poet Frances (Alison Oliver) and her ex-girlfriend, best friend, and muse all at once, Bobbi (a luminous Sasha Lane). The two become involved with an older married couple, Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and Nick (Joe Alwyn), and the messy threads that tie them all together tangle and unravel in turns over vignettes of the Dublin literary scene.
Back to the Drawing Board: It doesn’t really feel fair to compare Conversations with Friends to Normal People — however, when so many members of the team who worked on Normal People returned for this outing, it’s hard not to do so. This includes Element Pictures, director Lenny Abrahamson, co-writer Alice Birch, and music supervisor Juliet Martin. Newcomer Alison Oliver was cast out of the same drama school Paul Mescal attended. The font for the title card is even the same as Normal People.
The creative team is a collection of phenomenally talented people — Martin has an otherworldly intuition for placing the sort of needle drops that took moments of Normal People to the next level, and does the same here — but lightning doesn’t necessarily strike twice with the show overall. This has nothing to do with the crew or cast (more on them in a moment), and everything to do with the source material. Rooney’s work tends to be divisive; while her best-selling numbers prove that there’s an audience for the nuanced way in which she explores interpersonal relationships, many tend to find her a bit pretentious, or out of touch.
All that aside, there’s a warmth to the love story at the center of Normal People that’s missing from Conversations with Friends. If you’re the sort of person who is fascinated by the messiness and minutiae of modern love stories, rather than a viewer that needs kind and good characters to root for, there’s a good chance the show is for you.
That’s the Thing About Illicit Affairs: The adaptation is very faithful to the source material, and the mini-series structure is able to take its time and do it all justice. Again, it’s hard to ignore how similar parts of the plot are to parts of Normal People — we’re once again centered on a shy, smart brunette who comes from a broken, abusive home. People are together, they break up, and get back together again, often without labels. There’s a summer jaunt to an absurdly upscale vacation home.
The axis the plot hinges on here is Frances’ friendship-turned-affair with Nick. Their initial attraction and eventual secret coupling is awkward, their flirting offbeat and often uncomfortable, and not in an indie, quirky way. Meanwhile, Bobbi gravitates towards Melissa, which proves to be a point of contention in her relationship with Frances. While Frances and Bobbi are no longer together, they’re also unable to live without one another, and seem to be stuck in a constant loop of hurting the other, apologizing, and warming back up again.
This cycle repeats itself in various forms throughout the 12 episodes — there’s only so many times you can see characters acting selfishly or undermining themselves before it becomes a bit monotonous. Everyone is some kind of self-destructive.
Watching the World from the Sidelines: Far and away, the highlight of the show is its performances. Sasha Lane, who broke out with 2016’s American Honey and reached new audiences with Marvel’s Loki, is grounded and well-rounded as Bobbi, who is described as the kind of person who shows up to a party and immediately captures absolutely everyone’s attention and interest. She makes this characterization instantly believable. Alison Oliver, meanwhile (in her TV debut, no less), has to do some serious heavy lifting as Frances, particularly in (light spoiler ahead) sequences unpacking her experience with endometriosis.
Jemima Kirke, arguably the most experienced of the four core cast members, brings Melissa to life thoughtfully and intentionally. There’s a good chance that most people will be buzzing about Joe Alwyn’s performance as Nick, though — while there’s already been plenty of discourse around the fact that Taylor Swift’s Boyfriend (gasp!) is fictionally hooking up with another woman, on screen, for his job, Alwyn turns in some legitimately great work as Nick.
We as the audience have to believe that Frances would fall for someone with whom she has little in common, who is also married, and who hurts her time and time again — and Alwyn pulls it off. For anyone who saw 2019’s The Favourite, Alwyn’s acting abilities will come as absolutely no surprise. (He went toe-to-toe with Emma Stone there, and ended up raucously funny.) It’s a very different role from what anyone has seen from the actor thus far, though, and will perhaps toss casting agents around the world into a frenzy to lock him in for another proper leading man romantic role first.
The Verdict: If you’re a viewer who enjoys unpacking the big questions with others — Did they actually love each other? What was the point of that decision? Are they morally good or bad? — Conversations with Friends will be absolutely up your alley. However, if you’re unfamiliar with Rooney’s work or hoping for a story with characters closer to those found in Normal People, things might not land as well.
What can be expected from the show, though, is some lovely coloring and cinematography, stellar performances, well-placed music cues, and a story that lingers after the final credits have rolled.
Where to Watch: All 12 episodes of Conversations With Friends will have everyone talking Sunday, May 15th, on Hulu.