“Conversations with Friends” opens with a riddle. Frances (newcomer Alison Oliver) sits with her friend, stage partner, and ex-girlfriend Bobbi (Sasha Lane), rehearsing a draft for their next spoken word poetry event. “I am inherently worthless, but highly prized,” they say, alternating lines. “I will empty out your bank account. I’m all about love, but I have a heart of stone and have been known to prefer to be owned.”
Without revealing the answer (revealed later in the premiere), these three eloquent sentences cleanly encapsulate a knotty romance bursting with ideas. Hulu’s 12-episode limited series examines the values assigned to things and people against the values set by society and, at times, experience. “Conversations with Friends” is at once a thorough character study (of at least two of its four leads) and a thought experiment about young artists struggling to live within a capitalistic system they resent. Scenes are filled with shared opinions and high-minded ideas, just as quieter moments illustrate how difficult it can be to actually practice those theoretical standards. Human instinct, desire, and the our capacity for love clash with academic refutations of senseless practices. This is, after all, a Sally Rooney adaptation.
Based on the Irish author’s debut novel, “Conversations with Friends” initially appears markedly similar to her second book and first Hulu limited series, “Normal People,” which earned four Emmy nominations and made Paul Mescal 2020’s enduring heartthrob. They’re both set in and around Dublin; they both center on secret affairs; they both follow brooding, damaged men who have trouble speaking at length, and withdrawn, overlooked leading ladies who elicit steady banter nonetheless. But Hulu’s latest — made by many of the same names behind “Normal People,” including director and executive producer Lenny Abrahamson, writer Alice Birch, and EPs Emma Norton, Ed Guiney, and Andrew Lowe — is a messier, broader, more ambitious tale. Viewers coaxed into the familiar trappings of a swooning, hopeless love story may be put off by the middle episodes’ twists and turns (and confounded by the purposefully jarring final beat). But “Conversations with Friends” makes for an admirable, if bumpier, follow-up: well-suited to its creators, exhibiting a whipsmart emotional I.Q., and distinct in its assessment of love’s many forms.
Later that night, after rehearsing their riddle, Frances and Bobbi step up to the mike in a small Dublin club filled with amateur performers and one professional writer. There, in the audience, is Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a respected author who approaches the duo at the bar to offer her thanks and admiration for the poem. They exchange pleasantries, and Melissa invites them for dinner and a swim at her seaside home just outside the city. Bobbi, an outspoken American who’s already as cool and confident as her new semi-famous friend, is immediately smitten with Melissa. But while they’re flirting, smoking, and bathing in the glow of shared harmony, Frances’ attention drifts to Melissa’s husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn). An actor currently leading a stage production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Nick is nevertheless reserved. He shrinks from the spotlight rather than seeking it out, and later tells Frances he likes being an actor because the words he’s meant to say are already written for him.
As they did in “Normal People,” Abrahamson and Birch thrive at eliciting maximum awareness from minimal activity. At dinner, Nick and Frances sit next to each other, facing forward, straining to make any kind of conversation at all. He talks about the play, she responds in kind. Awkward silences are punctuated by Melissa and Bobbi’s giddy laughter from the other room. But Nick and Frances still muster up a few relatively bold statements, distinguished by the actors’ active listening and the camera’s attention to it. The soon-to-be lovers’ quick chemistry (and the spark it gives these early episodes) can be credited as much to the acutely candid performances as the chosen and highlighted details. (Many lines from Rooney’s novel make the cut, though plenty is adjusted to better suit TV.) Numbers are exchanged. Plans are made. The seeds of a relationship are set.
To say Frances embarks on an affair with Nick isn’t a spoiler, so much as the catalyst for a romance involving far more than two people. Nick, of course, is married to Melissa. Bobbi, in turn, is openly attracted to Melissa, and Melissa has, it turns out, carried out at least one affair already. But Frances and Bobbi still have unresolved relationship issues of their own. The two friends are thick as thieves, yet their unexamined breakup lingers. Blurred lines in their past and present play a significant part in how Frances and Nick’s dalliance evolves into something more. Even as love blooms in secret, it always feels like their are four parts to this couple.
That’s very much the point, even if the 12 half-hour episodes never equate to a true ensemble piece. Frances is the lead, embodied with age-appropriate naïveté and reticent passion by Oliver. The Irish actor, cast here in her first professional role out of Dublin’s Lir Academy, precisely crafts Frances’ natural, reserved nature. By letting her guard down with ease, she establishes a rich, intimate history with Bobbi, while proving just as compelling in getting a wobbly relationship on its feet with Nick. Lived in and raw, Oliver’s turn is a standout.
To readers, Alwyn may seem a bit young to play a “trophy husband.” After all, in the book, he’s an established star not famous enough to have his personal details on Wikipedia (ironic, given the rabid fanbase surrounding the actor’s real-life relationship) but prominent enough to be nominated for a major award. Those qualities go unmentioned in the series, which reconfigures Nick with a mix of attributes enviable to Frances. He’s not a father figure, but he offers fiscal security and devout attention in a way her own wayward dad does not. Meanwhile, he’s still young enough to identify with her struggles (as an artist, mainly), troubled enough to commiserate with her melancholy, and objectively handsome — thus, a convincing outlet for latent desire. Nick is living a phase of life Frances wants to skip ahead and join, but even as she sees beyond its shiny facade (including an absolutely magnificent house), she’s just as infatuated with the man offering her a leg up.
Alwyn’s sheepish deflections and pained confessions ring true, even when his devotion to Frances repeatedly relies on an that ineffable attraction oft-cited in sweeping romances. “Conversations with Friends” is as eager to embrace these kind of genre conventions as it is delighted to upend them. For the most part, it pulls off both. The dense text still provides plenty of simple pleasures, be it the efficiency of 30-minute episodes or the notable inclusion of another music cue from “The O.C.” There’s a wry wit to much of the courtship, and the filmmakers maintain their uncanny ability to capture lots of texting in an artful, informative, and compelling manner. While the six hours can get bumpy in plotting (and frustrating when the story’s perceptiveness clashes with its lead’s innocence), “Conversations with Friends” paints a sophisticated psychological portrait of when youthful ambitions and adult realities come to a head. The ideas we strive for and the ideas we have of ourselves can’t always gel with what the world demands of us or how others interpret our actions. And when such disparities involve matters of the heart, well, sometimes the riddle requires more than one answer.
“Conversations with Friends” premieres all 12 episodes Sunday, May 15 on Hulu.