“Conversations With Friends” is the new psychological drama from the makers of the transcendent “Normal People.” Like “Normal People,” one of best series of 2020, it’s based on a Sally Rooney novel, it’s set in Ireland, it’s on Hulu, and it’s 12 half-hour episodes long. It, too, takes a microscopic view of the way people behave in relationships, allowing enough time to let every phase of connection and disconnection play out. Desire, fear, lust, avoidance, infatuation, jealousy, they’re all chronicled in the course of the show through eye contact, tones of voice, body language, sighs, feigned nonchalance, awkward silences, and the occasional outburst.
This close level of scrutiny is hard to pull off, and “Conversations With Friends” succeeds to some extent. As you watch each of the four central characters in action, whether they’re washing dishes, at a book party, or together in bed, you feel that you have been brought into a close proximity with them. The direction, by Lenny Abrahamson and Leanne Welham, is probing, as we see that their feelings almost always fail to match their actions. They are all creative types, but they are so profoundly guarded that they rarely express themselves directly.
But I couldn’t stop feeling that the people that “Conversations With Friends” is looking into so acutely and sensitively are unworthy of the examination, and their links to one another seem unlikely. Quickly, the series, which premieres on Sunday, starts to feel like a deep dive into shallow waters. There are some big themes afoot, about whether monogamy is natural, about whether loving a person means you can’t love another equally at the same time, about the differences in gender definitions between generations. But it’s an effort to embrace and interpret those themes with sustained interest as they play out with these particular people.
The central character is Alison Oliver’s introverted Frances, a 21-year-old college senior and poet. She performs her poetry in clubs with her more outgoing American best friend and ex-girlfriend, Bobbi, played by Sasha Lane. At one performance, they meet an experienced author in her 30s, Melissa (the perfectly cast Jemima Kirke), who admires their work. Drawn to their youth and energy, it seems, she pulls them into her social world, which includes her powerful agent and, most importantly, her husband, a struggling actor named Nick (Joe Alwyn). While Bobbi flirts with Melissa, Frances and Nick fight to resist their mutual attraction — unsuccessfully. Soon Frances and Nick are having an affair and keeping it a secret from the other two.
From the beginning, I could not quite understand why Melissa, so sophisticated, would aggressively pursue Frances and Bobbi, particularly after seeing just how stiff, halting, self-absorbed, and unformed Frances is. In some ways, perhaps, Melissa and Nick are unconsciously looking for a couple to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” with or grabbing onto life jackets in case their marriage is sinking — but still, the merging of the couples never worked for me. While the style of “Conversations With Friends” encouraged me to ponder these people and their motivations, I couldn’t come up with much.
That’s especially the case when it comes to Frances, who has none of the charisma of Bobbi. Throughout, I found her to be a cypher, lost in her own narcissism. She is a mirror onto which those around her project their own emotions and perceptions. She seems so afraid of being hurt by the world that she has cultivated an aura of unknowability around herself. I suppose Nick, feeling less than the accomplished Melissa, is ripe for a dalliance, and I suppose he identifies with Frances’s interiority and broodiness. But their time together never seems natural to me. The sex scenes, which were so articulate and narrative in “Normal People,” don’t ring of the kind of need each of them is meant to be feeling. No matter how long the camera lingers on the couple, or on Frances alone, it seems, still nothing authentic emerges.
And that camera does linger. “Conversations With Friends” is beautifully made, and the acting is fine, particularly by Lane, who delivers some of the electricity that is missing overall. But there’s not enough going on to justify all the time spent. Theirs are not conversations I’m inclined to eavesdrop on.
CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS
Starring: Alison Oliver, Sasha Lane, Joe Alwyn, Jemima Kirke
On: Hulu. Premieres Sunday.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.