Updated: May 27, 2022 8:36:14 am
Pleasingly moody but muted to a fault, Conversations with Friends is too meandering to truly understand. Not that it is any show’s responsibility to be ‘understandable’, but the audience is owed a certain level of engagement. Far too often, though, the 12-episode drama positively pushes you away. This may or may not be deliberately designed to mimic the behaviour that its characters display towards each other.
Essentially a spiritual sequel to Normal People, one of the pandemic era’s biggest sleeper hits, Conversations with Friends is the second television adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel. It retains the same core creative team from the earlier show; Lenny Abrahamson serves as the lead director, with Alice Birch having written most of the episodes. Even the title treatment is virtually the same.
Clearly, the new series is meant to capitalise on the success of the first one, but instead of correcting some of Normal People’s most frustrating problems—the show’s fundamental impracticality was always in conflict with its aspirations of emotional grandeur—Conversations with Friends doubles down on them. It dances to its own music, but suffers from serious Second Album Syndrome.
Newcomer Alison Oliver plays the reserved college student Frances Flynn, who affects a persona that alternates between mildly mysterious and outwardly arrogant. This changes more on the basis of your enjoyment of the show than anything that Oliver does with her performance. As with Normal People, there are moments where you want to physically reach into the screen and give these characters a good shake. But unlike that show, which at least milked stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal’s undeniable chemistry, 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 senior citizens out on Sunday brunch.
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For the life of me, I still can’t get a read on Nick. It’s true that both him and Frances are cursed by a crippling lack of expressiveness. They’re frighteningly inarticulate, which is often the reason behind their conflicts. To communicate effectively, they rely on their respective art forms instead. Frances is a spoken word poet who attracts the attention, along with her former lover Bobbi (Sasha Lane), of the celebrated writer Melissa Baines (Jemima Kirke). Nick is Melissa’s (comparatively) underachieving husband. There’s a bit of on-the-nose meta casting going on here.
When Nick and Frances initiate an illicit affair, the sense is that finally, after who knows how many years, they feel seen and heard. Little is said between them—they struggle to even make eye-contact initially—but they’re soulmates, caught in a doomed romance. For instance, Bobbi fails to understand the legitimacy of Frances’ feelings towards Nick, when she drawls, “Do you really rank our relationship below your passing sexual interest in some cis-het married guy?”
Like so many college kids who’ve only recently experienced a social and cultural awakening, Bobbi is terrible company. Frances has an air of superiority as well; she definitely thinks of herself as smarter than the riff-raff that she spends time with, and is visibly overwhelmed by the far more outgoing Bobbi. In Nick, she sees not just an attractive man who represents the sort of sophistication that she aspires for, but an intellectual equal.
Ironically, though, she finds her agency robbed even more as their affair develops into real love. She waits around for him—ostensibly the older man, the adult—to take control of the situation. She hangs on to his every word, waits desperately for his text messages, and ultimately submits to his wishes. Every start and stop in their relationship is dictated by him.
When Nick refuses to verbally reciprocate her feelings towards him but continues to lead her on, she experiences terrible period cramps. It is in these scenes that Conversation with Friends comes close to resembling a David Cronenberg body horror movie, and while the correlation between Frances’ emotional and psychological torment is quite literal, it feels sanitised and superficial—an allegory, not an actual side-effect of her deepest insecurities coming true.
Conversations with Friends ultimately comes across as a Boomer’s flawed understanding of the millennial experience. And that is tragic, because this way, it leans into all criticisms that the older generation has with us, without having a clue about what we’re going through. On certain occasions, it actually feels like the show’s making fun of Frances.
To be a millennial is to be sensitive to the feelings of others, yet deeply insecure about our own; it is to be acutely aware of the problems that the world is plagued by, but ill-equipped to do anything about them. We are judgmental, yet condescending towards those who judge others. We are idealists, yet deeply pragmatic. This is the conflict of our existence; the cause of our disillusionment. 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 compensate for its protagonists’ outward coolness.
Conversations with Friends
Directors – Lenny Abrahamson, Leanne Welham
Cast – Alison Oliver, Joe Alwyn, Sasha Lane, Jemima Kirke
Rating – 2/5
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