It is a truth universally acknowledged – at least among people of a certain age and socio-economic demographic – that Conversations with Friends is Sally Rooney’s best novel, a debut superior to its acclaimed follow-up, Normal People. So it’s no surprise to find the BBC returning to the territory that made 2020’s Normal People one of the first true hits of lockdown, a Tiger King for the generation gleefully squandering their mortgage money on turmeric lattes. Conversations with Friends revisits the formula so faithfully that even the absence of any narrative continuity cannot prevent this feeling like a sequel.
Conversations with Friends follows the tangled lives of Frances (newcomer Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (American Honey’s Sasha Lane), who are best friends, ex-lovers, and, to their eternal shame, performance poets. “You’re quite intense together,” Nick (The Favourite’s Joe Alwyn) observes, after the duo are roped into dinner by his wife Melissa (Girls’ Jemima Kirke). Nick and Melissa, an actor and writer respectively, become sources of fixation for the girls. Frances develops an all-consuming, and very much requited, crush on Nick, while Bobbi drifts along in flirtatious repartee with Melissa. “Can you actually imagine them on their own?” questions Bobbi, as she and Frances come steamrolling into this marriage.
As viewers, we don’t have to (though we may want to). Conversations with Friends is a home invasion story: Frances and Bobbi blow in like a harsh wind off the Irish sea. Frances, a self-avowed communist, gets all moony over the couple’s mid-century furniture. “Your house is very cool,” she says. “You two are such grown-ups,” adds Bobbi. That glossy veneer of Nick and Melissa’s lives – the essential capitalistic impulse to consume and own – is the show’s central, but agnostic, critique. Asked why she writes poetry, Frances responds that she likes “the impermanence of it”. “I feel a bit sick when I think about it lasting forever,” she adds. Eventually she finds her mind, her body, her experiences, all commodified by her affair with Nick. Cue much unhappy pondering of humanity’s terminal state of misery.
The story is Frances’s, and Alison Oliver – all anxious lip-biting and nervy dry swallows – more than carries the piece. She is a lone Celtic presence in a production that feels conspicuously de-Irished: Bobbi is now American and Melissa English. Those performances feel very much within their actors’ established ranges (oh wow, it’s Jemima Kirke playing a woman who masks her vulnerability with vociferous confidence!) but there’s a wealth of charisma going round. London boy Joe Alwyn (who looks uncannily, it must be said, like a golden retriever) affects an Irish lilt so subtle as to be almost undetectable, but manages to capture something of Nick’s sexless sexiness (like a well-read, emotionally manipulative Ken doll).
Conversations with Friends is long. The series runs for 12 episodes. My UK edition of the novel has 321 pages, which means, various boffins assure me, that each episode represents about 27 pages’ worth of action. The problem of protraction (or compression) is endemic in the adaptation of novels, but the pacing of Conversations with Friends feels so indulgently languorous, the milieu (whether in Ireland or Croatia) so oppressively repetitive, that the effect is, at best, hypnotic, and, at worst, soporific. “It’s a proper play,” Nick says, of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “where stuff happens.” This, it seems to announce proudly, is the opposite.
Though it is undoubtedly slow, solipsistic, and self-satisfied, the show has an ambient appeal. It is television designed to be watched out of the corner of your eye while scrolling through Instagram, peering in at strangers on two screens simultaneously. And if the prospect of watching the lives of a group of rather entitled millennials unravel at a pace closer to Captain Tom than Mo Farah doesn’t excite you, there are plenty of close-ups of beautiful people kissing to keep you distracted. In the end, Conversations with Friends, like its characters, doesn’t have much to say, but takes its sweet time saying it.