Sometimes producers and streaming networks get a bit ambitious when they pitch a series project based on a popular novel. They think because it’s a novel that the series adaptation can go for six, ten, maybe even twelve episodes. But some novels just don’t translate to long-form series. An adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friendsmade by the same production team that adapted her novel Normal Peoplemight be one of those kinds of novels.
Opening Shot: Two female college students sitting on the stairs, looking like they’re rehearsing a poem that they’re performing.
The Gist: Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) go to Trinity College in Dublin. They’re best friends, maintaining that friendship despite having broken up their romantic relationship three years prior. They read the poems Frances has written at a local pub.
The school year is over, and Frances’ roommate is about to leave for the summer, but she spends all her time with Bobbi, anyway. After one reading, they recognize Melissa (Jemima Kirke), who has written a book that’s gotten some local acclaim. The three of them hit it off and become fast friends; Melissa invites the pair to her house to have dinner with her and her husband Nick (Joe Alwyn).
During dinner, Bobbi finds herself attracted to Melissa, and the two of them openly flirt. There’s certainly an attraction going on between Frances and Nick, but it’s definitely more halting and awkward. She asks him about the play he’s in, and he seems to downplay the fact that he’s doing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof because it’s not avant-garde enough. But Frances is interested and asks if she can see a performance.
Sher goes by herself but doesn’t stay to greet him afterwards. For her part, Bobbi, who doesn’t even understand how someone cool like Melissa could be married, much less to a guy like Nick, pokes fun at Frances for going without her. But she stays at Frances’ apartment when Frances has some severe cramps during the night.
Nick promises to come to one of Frances and Bobbi’s readings, and Frances is genuinely surprised when he shows up.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Conversations With Friends has the personal focus and slowish pacing of Normal Peopleanother Sally Rooney adaptation produced by the same group.
Our Take: Conversations With Friends seems like the type of story that might be better suited for a 90-minute film rather than a 12-episode season. It’s a fairly small story: Best friends who used to be romantically involved get linked in different ways to a married couple. It seems like most of the season will consist of the ways Frances and Nick will connect, mixed in with some Bobbi and Melissa goings-on, and what the fallout will be for the original relationships.
Does that sound like something you’d want to watch for (checks screeners) six hours? We didn’t think so. It’s not like all four members of this quadrad aren’t appealing. Oliver plays Frances as someone who seems to have convictions but she knows inside that those convictions are squishy at best. Alwyn does a fine job giving Nick some squeamishness about being profound and erudite, because no one expects him to be. Lane plays Bobbi like the forthright New Yorker she is. And Kirke has been doing the over-it-bohemian thing since at least when Girls started a decade ago.
But the actual story in the first episode failed to engage us in any significant way, because there doesn’t seem to be much depth to any of the four main characters, at least not yet. So instead of developing this friendship through introducing us to the lives of the quartet’s members and then letting things grow from there, we dive right into everyone being attracted to someone in the opposite pair.
Will some of this depth happen as the season goes along? We sure hope so. But, even though each episode runs under 30 minutes each, we don’t know if we have the intestinal fortitude to follow this story to the point where it does actually get somewhere significant.
Sex and Skin: Nothing in the first episode, though that seems to be just a temporary thing.
Parting Shot: Nick painfully tries to tell Frances how much he liked her spoken word performance. He suggests he’ll write everything in an e-mail “full of compliments and…. complete sentences” and Frances says it “won’t require us to make eye contact.” Then she looks up and says, “You could try it, though.” We’re guessing she meant making eye contact.
Sleeper Star: There are supporting players in this show, but the four main characters dominate so much, it’s hard to pinpoint a supporting actor as a sleeper.
Most Pilot-y Line: “It’s a proper play where stuff happens,” Nick says about Cat On A Hot Tin Roofalmost defensively.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Like we said, we would have really liked Conversations With Friends if it were a movie or maybe even a four-part limited series. But there just doesn’t seem to be enough narrative energy to sustain the story for 12 episodes.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.comFast Company and elsewhere.