Hulu’s Sally Rooney book adaptation Normal People was my absolute favorite TV show of 2020: a magnificently moving, beautifully rendered portrait of young love, with all its dizzying highs and lows. So I was excited when I heard Hulu was adapting another Rooney novel, Conversations With Friends, and bringing back Normal People director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Alice Birch to work on it as well. It debuts on Hulu this Sunday — I’ve seen all 12 episodes — but unfortunately, it falls short of the lofty heights its predecessor hit. Like the novel it’s based on, Hulu’s Conversations is initially intriguing but ultimately frustrating.
The story centers on Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane), a pair of Dublin college students and ex-lovers who are complete opposites: Bobbi is the chatty, bohemian life of the party, while Frances is thoughtful and reserved. At a poetry reading, Bobbi catches the eye of married author Melissa (Jemima Kirke), and as they pair off, Frances forms a kinship with Melissa’s actor husband Nick (Joe Alwyn). Their two parallel crushes turn into something more, of course, and threaten the foundation of a marriage — and a friendship.
Rooney specializes in crafting relatable characters and natural dialogue in her books, and Conversations has the same grounded feel Normal People had, albeit slightly heightened and juicier this time. The conversations are brimming with subtext, punctuated by lots of longing looks and significant glances. Plus, the sex scenes have genuine heat to them, as Normal People‘s did; they feel real and intimate in a way we rarely see, leaving the participants sweaty and flushed and not entirely photogenic.
The story unfolds along fairly predictable lines, though: the giddy rush of infidelity, followed by nagging guilt and jealousy. A picturesque seaside vacation acts as an emotional pressure cooker, and the early episodes hit on some messy, complicated truths about love and relationships. But the series meanders a bit after that initial rush and ends up getting stuck in narrative lulls and loops. It’s leisurely paced, to the point of being snoozy. (All those significant glances don’t add up to much of significance, really.) It’s true to life, you might say… but that doesn’t mean it’s dramatically satisfying.
It’s also a tall order for the actors to equal the stunning work done by Normal People stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. Oliver has a huge load to carry here in her first major role — the camera spends a lot of time on her face — and she carries it well, lending Frances a captivating vulnerability. Frances can be hard to read, though, which makes it harder for us to connect with her, and with the show’s narrow focus on her, it all starts to feel a bit claustrophobic. (Frances’ home life is dreary, with an unreliable alcoholic dad and a mysterious health issue.)
Alwyn, who will likely draw fans to this project simply by being Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, makes a dashing romantic lead as Nick, but his scenes with Oliver’s Frances fall into a repetitive rut after a while. The story could use more of Bobbi and Melissa to spice things up, but Kirke barely makes more than a cameo as Melissa, and Lane’s Bobbi is seriously underwritten — more of a symbol than a fully realized character. Conversations is dutifully faithful to Rooney’s prose, as Normal People was, but that means it suffers from the same flaws, too. 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.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Hulu’s intriguing but frustrating book adaptation Conversations With Friends can’t quite match the heights of Normal People.