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Hulu's Conversations with Friends is miscast and meandering, failing to recapture the insight of Normal People

  • Sally 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)," says Caroline Framke. "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... meander hesitantly along until it finally just runs out of steam." Framke adds that, quickly, "the real problem presents itself and never truly goes away: (Alison) Oliver and (Joe) 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."


    • Conversations with Friends is a gripping tale of sex, love and betrayal: "I found myself completely drawn into the romance of Nick and Frances and when I wasn't sitting glued to my laptop screen watching their torrid affair unfold, I found myself thinking about them when I attempted to tear myself away from the screen," says Rachel Thompson. "I think that's the measure of a really great TV show or movie — thinking about the characters and their story when you're chopping vegetables in silence on a weeknight. These four friends got under my skin and I suspect they'll get under yours, too. You'll find yourself urgently needing to know what happens, how these relationships (plural!) turn out, whether people's feelings get hurt, whether they're all OK in the end."
    • Conversations with Friends is muted, frustrating and bloodless: "On the page, this setup has all the trappings of a sensational melodrama, but in practice, it plays out like a drippily sad, muted story," says Valerie Ettenhofer. "Rooney’s works are quite internal and on-screen, which translates mostly to characters reading texts or sharing wordless glances. At different points, we learn that both Frances and Nick have often been defined by those around them by their passivity. Both also worry that they don’t emote enough, while they feel plenty of big feelings on the inside. None of these traits, it probably goes without saying, make for particularly compelling television."
    • Conversations with Friends should've been a movie: "Despite the strong work by all in front of and behind the camera... 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," says Alan Sepinwall. "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."
    • Conversations with Friends hews close to its source material, yet shifts it to suggest a different meaning: "Director Lenny Abrahamson and co-writer Alice Birch—the creative team behind 2020’s acclaimed Hulu adaptation of Rooney’s novel Normal People—have mounted a similarly exquisite production, all young people talking about their feelings in the subdued, blue of Irish sunlight washing through windows against a background of delicate room noise," says Laura Miller. "But Conversations with Friends is more of a condensed ensemble piece than the long chronicle of an on-again, off-again love affair at the center of Normal People. It revolves around Oliver’s consummate performance as Frances, a young woman who not only doesn’t know what she’s doing, but also has trouble figuring out what she wants and feels. The other characters in the series’ ménage à quatre are nearly as vivid."
    • Conversations with Friends challenges our perceptions of friendships, romantic relationships, sexuality, and how they all relate: "Conversations with Friends asks more questions than it answers, and it may very well rip out your heart and run it over with one of those mopeds you see on the streets of Dublin," says Ellen Johnson. "But despite the less-than-clean endings, Rooney’s stories offer more than just repressed horny Irish people who lack basic communication skills. She crafts brilliant observations on human relationships and personality, and while Hulu’s second stab at her work doesn’t always fully capture the melancholy nuance in Rooney’s written word (how could it?), it comes mighty close."
    • Conversations becomes remarkable through its details: "Unlike Marianne and Connell in Normal People—lovers too purposely crafted as yin and yang, in a contrivance that felt even more conspicuous when interpreted on screen—each of the four main characters comes across as a complete, internally consistent person whose relationship with every other character is unique," says Judy Berman. "Alienated from a body that goes haywire monthly, Frances sees herself as plain; in bed with Nick, a handsome celebrity who somehow finds her attractive enough to warrant cheating, she can let go of that hangup. Melissa represents one possible future Frances might work toward if she, 'a communist' according to Bobbi, decides she can stomach writing for money. For Melissa, the girls’ youth offers relevance and vitality. Nick romanticizes Frances’ innocence. Frances and Bobbi care so deeply about each other that they can’t stop hurting each other."
    • Newcomer Alison Oliver runs away with the show: "This falls right in line with one of Normal People’s finest accomplishments: introducing us to promising young actors to swoon and obsess over," says Fletcher Peters. "Frances would be easy to hate. She’s brooding, disconnected, can’t find her way in life, and has initiated an affair with a married man. On top of that, Frances treats her dear friend Bobbi like a dusty old ragdoll. But Oliver portrays Frances with such purpose. It’s a performance similar to Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People, another hushed, moody role that could lead audiences to recoil. With another actress, Frances could be considered selfish, boring, or dull. That’s not the case here. Oliver recently graduated from college, so she really translates Frances’ youthful confusion in a way that an older, more experienced actress wouldn’t be able to manage."
    • There's something about Conversations with Friends that's not quite as emotionally vivid as Normal People: "The challenge of serving all these relationships is a little too much for the script, and Frances' point of view, as portrayed on screen, isn't quite enough to illuminate all these other characters and make them feel fully realized," says Linda Holmes. "It's the less successful of these two related projects, but if you like your dramas understated, you won't be disappointed."
    • Conversations with Friends paints a sophisticated psychological portrait of when youthful ambitions and adult realities come to a head: “Conversations with Friends is as eager to embrace these kind of genre conventions as it is delighted to upend them," says Ben Travers. "For the most part, it pulls off both. The dense text still provides plenty of simple pleasures, be it the efficiency of 30-minute episodes or the notable inclusion of another music cue from The O.C. There’s a wry wit to much of the courtship, and the filmmakers maintain their uncanny ability to capture lots of texting in an artful, informative, and compelling manner. While the six hours can get bumpy in plotting (and frustrating when the story’s perceptiveness clashes with its lead’s innocence), Conversations with Friends paints a sophisticated psychological portrait of when youthful ambitions and adult realities come to a head. The ideas we strive for and the ideas we have of ourselves can’t always gel with what the world demands of us or how others interpret our actions. And when such disparities involve matters of the heart, well, sometimes the riddle requires more than one answer."
    • There's something hypnotic about Conversations with Friends: "Visually, the show is unexpectedly cozy, awash in gloomy greens and grays," says Nina Metz. "Often it’s raining outside. A summer retreat to Croatia offers a brief respite with blue skies, but the story’s thematic undertow remains anything but sunny; sneaking around may generate an erotic charge, but it also stirs up anxieties and jealousies."
    • Like the novel it’s based on, Conversations is initially intriguing but ultimately frustrating: "Conversations is dutifully faithful to Rooney’s prose, as Normal People was, but that means it suffers from the same flaws, too," says Dave Nemetz. "It’s still a notch or two above your average romantic drama and offers some smart emotional insight along the way, but in the end, it’s a fleeting dalliance that fades too quickly."
    • Conversations with Friends' pacing is a little too bucolic to handle what’s, at its core, hardly groundbreaking material: "We’ve seen the mechanics and rhythms of these kinds of stories before: the lying, the cheating, the narcissism involved in believing that their story will be different from all the other affairs throughout history. Furtive text conversations lay out the terms of their relationship; the two meet up, sleep together, worry what their friends/spouses might think; rinse, repeat. Where Normal People charts the devastating impact of first monogamous love, Conversations with Friends' juggles a power dynamic—wealthier, married man in a fling with a young college student—we’ve seen before, and not in a way that opens up many new layers."
    • Conversations with Friends is elegant and restrained, to a fault: "Conversations With Friends charts Frances’ halting journey toward bridging the disconnect between theory and practice, head and heart, with patience and a perceptive eye for detail," says Angie Han. "But it too often tilts toward the same sense of reserve that its heroine does, resulting in a series that’s elegant and sensitive, but perhaps too cool for its own good."
    • Executive producer and director Lenny Abrahamson praises today's TV audiences for being “much more progressive than distributors, filmmakers and producers think they are": “Had we done Normal People or Conversations With Friends as a long feature it would have had a tiny audience," he says. "It’s really hard to get those films to stay in cinemas and audiences tend to mainly go out to see bigger tentpoles now.”
    • Alison Oliver’s portrayal of Frances may feel surprising to some fans of the book: The 24-year-old Oliver, with scant acting credits, went into her audition as "such a massive fan" of Sally Rooney's work. “I think she’s such an incredible writer.," she says. As The New York Times' Desiree Ibekwe explains: "The Frances of the screen seems more sympathetic — less cold and arch than she appears on the page, and perhaps more insecure and quietly overwhelmed." As Meadhbh McHugh, an Irish playwright who adapted five episodes, put it: “I think her archness can be a type of defense mechanism, but onscreen we are not getting access to Frances’ interior thoughts as in the novel, and so you want to see the vulnerability from which she’s operating.” It's Oseman's vulnerability that led to her casting. As director Lenny Abrahamson says: “She made so much sense of the character,” and “not in the obvious way.”

    TOPICS: Conversations with Friends, BBC, Hulu, Normal People, Alice Oseman, Joe Alwyn, Lenny Abrahamson , Meadhbh McHugh, Sally Rooney