Wednesday, September 28

Conversations with Friends: the frustrating awkwardness of a much-hyped series | Television

IIt was always unlikely that Conversations with Friends, the new Hulu and BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s first novel, would be able to repeat the lightning strike of Normal People. The latter show, another Hulu/BBC production based on Rooney’s bestselling second novel and released in April 2020, was the rare combination of right material, right time. Its straightforward, though elegantly told, premise – on-and-off, boy-girl love story over several years – and naturalistic, genuinely hot depictions of physical intimacy (one sex scene lasted 9 minutes and 24 seconds, a full third of the episode) struck a nerve during a time of mass isolation.

Conversations with Friends is a harder sell. The book and series follow a thorny quadrangle of sex and friendship between two best friends/ex-lovers and an older married couple – none of whom, in classic Rooney fashion, seem to party to their own motivations. It’s a murkier tangle than Normal People, made even more inaccessible by the characters’ psychological opaqueness and general aversion to speaking. Key figures from Normal People – Irish production company Element Pictures, director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Alice Birch – strive for a similar quiet, meditative realism on Conversations, with characters who communicate more frequently, and significantly, through text and email. (Rooney co-wrote the first half of Normal People, but has no official role in this series.)

Carrying over both Rooney’s reticent style and digital communication is a tall order, and the loss to translation is a palpable absence. Conversations with Friends is frequently beautiful and steadfastly naturalistic – we see the characters in transit, getting dressed, texting with clear timestamps for the summer of 2019 – but keeps its characters terse, two-dimensional and frustratingly inscrutable. It’s a curiously flat mixture – pretty people in pretty places, decent acting (particularly from leads Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn) and well-choreographed, verité sex scenes that mostly run cold.

As in the book, the show takes the perspective of Frances, played by Irish newcomer Oliver, a 21-year-old university student who performs spoken word with Bobbi (American Honey’s Sasha Lane), drawing the eye of thirtysomething Melissa (Girls’ Jemima Kirke), an essayist and sophisticate. In the book, Frances and Melissa’s husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), both uncomfortable in social situations, flirt over email before plunging into an affair. On-screen, it happens within two episodes with little said between them beyond trailed-off sentences. “I’ll craft you an email. It’ll be full of compliments in complete sentences, ”Nick tells her in the first episode after attending her poetry performance by her. “We won’t even have to make eye contact,” she replies. To quote Frances in any tense situation: OK.

Like Normal People’s Marianne, Frances is a typical Rooney protagonist: intellectual, thin, confident when expressing her leftist views, aloof and tongue-tied when verbalizing her feelings. What can be detailed in the book as neuroticism comes off on screen as coldness, inexplicable wordlessness. Nick and Frances are two awkward people often behaving awkwardly, and passing that discomfort – or, given how little we can discern of these characters, blankness – to the audience. Their numerous sex scenes, which like Normal People employed an intimacy coordinator, are expertly choreographed and sensitively filmed yet lack a fundamental chemistry – motions without feelings. When Frances tells him, in bed on a Croatian holiday with Bobbi and Melissa, that she doubted his interest in her because “you don’t always seem that enthusiastic,” he answers that it’s not her – “it’s me, I’m just awkward.” She replies, “me too, obviously,” and they kiss.

That awkwardness pervades the whole 12-episode season, which struggles to capture Rooney’s psychological insights on the absurd performances and isolation of millennial life. That’s in part due to Rooney’s minimalist style – the prose is mostly action and dialogue, with characters loth to express their reasoning. The novel relies heavily on digital communication – Rooney didn’t earn her reputation as the breakout millennial author for nothing – which is notoriously tricky to put on screen. Someone staring at their phone is inherently un-cinematic.

That being said, I found the show’s unhurried depiction of messaging – a chat history available to the audience, watching the characters use autocorrect, type and erase – to be one of its most evocative elements, in part because it’s still rare to see the weight of digital communication on our lives accurately reflected on screen. While the physical conversations trail off, leaving us wondering why either party wanted this affair or clung to this friendship, the texts – and Frances’s handling of them – are revealing. Her exchanges de ella with Nick and Bobbi – showed to the viewer and, for longer messages, narrated aloud – evince the gap between what is said and what is felt in the ways the conversations simply do not. Frances eyes her phone, scrolls back through old messages (“are we still having an affair?”), lingers on past words, fixates. The texts have the cringe of specific intimacy (Nick texts in all lower case) and the thrill of secrecy. That they echo for both Frances and the viewer – we’re on her phone from her, too – adds dimension to her emotions from her, her desperation and confusion, flattened by her behavior from her in person.

Ironically, it’s the bottled conversations that hamper the show. Frances and Bobbi are supposedly close, but there’s little to their relationship beyond unconvincing gestures of physical closeness, in brief sequences on dancefloors. It doesn’t help that Lane plays Bobbi as cold and incurious, which makes the character’s contempt for most people nearly unbearable by the season’s final episodes. You need to earn the characters’ ability to say basically nothing for several hours, and Conversations with Friends does not.

In other words, it’s like many television shows – imperfect and at times unwieldy, sometimes working and sometimes not, a jumble of elements straining at its illusion. That Normal People transcended the jump to screen is, in rearview, remarkable and fortuitous. Conversations with Friends took on a tougher task and landed in the vast TV middle: easy on the eyes but not as deep as it’s trying to be, watchable but not likely to provoke much discussion.

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