You may remember a little show called Normal People. That whirlwind Irish series with intimate scenes full of depth, and two performances of a lifetime? The saga with the beloved chain rested upon Paul Mescal’s perfectly sculpted pecs? Yes, that’s the one.
By now, you’ve probably heard that Hulu is coming out with a sister series, Conversations With Friends. Before getting into the nitty gritty of this new masterpiece, I must tell you that, yes, Conversations does measure up to the brilliance of Normal People.
Sally Rooney’s original books actually came out in reverse order: Conversations with Friends, her first novel, was released in 2017, a year before Normal People, but they feel more intertwined than they do sequential. The new series follows a quartet of Irish creatives who enter 80 different love triangles stemming from Frances (Alison Oliver), who leads the show as a quiet young writer, and her slam poetry best friend Bobbi (Sasha Lane), who happens to be her ex-lover—a raw, perfectly tender relationship to have at the heart of the show.
The pair meet beautiful couple Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and Nick (Joe Alwyn), who boast an opulent lifestyle and frail marriage perfectly poised for intruders. Frances immediately falls for Nick in a way that feels so familiar—she’s Googling and making fun of him to Bobbi, but texting him and giving him googly eyes right after. Frances’ infatuation becomes transparent and eye-roll-worthy, but in the best way. We’ve all been there.
As Frances and Nick build their intimate relationship, her connection with Bobbi topples to the ground. The quartet journey out to Croatia, where Nick and Frances fully solidify their affair, but Frances struggles to connect with a visiting literary publisher as a result of her ties to Melissa’s husband. Her father cuts her off. With no money, a growing medical issue, and a lost best friend, Frances struggles to find herself.
That cast should hint at how good the show is going to be. Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, who once played Emma Stone’s love interest in The Favourite? A rising coming-of-age star with hits like Hearts Beat Loud and American Honey? The best star of Girls? When the cast was announced ages ago, Conversations With Friends seemed promising. And, from the very first episode, when we first see the actors mingle with sizzling chemistry over white wine and sundresses, it’s clear that the hype wasn’t overblown.
It’s newcomer Alison Oliver, however, who runs away with the show. This falls right in line with one of Normal People’s finest accomplishments: introducing us to promising young actors to swoon and obsess over. Frances would be easy to hate. She’s brooding, disconnected, can’t find her way in life, and has initiated an affair with a married man. On top of that, Frances treats her dear friend Bobbi like a dusty old ragdoll.
But Oliver portrays Frances with such purpose. It’s a performance similar to Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People, another hushed, moody role that could lead audiences to recoil. With another actress, Frances could be considered selfish, boring, or dull. That’s not the case here. Oliver recently graduated from college, so she really translates Frances’ youthful confusion in a way that an older, more experienced actress wouldn’t be able to manage.
I do feel bad that Conversations will be compared to Normal People from the start, but let’s face it, it’s inevitable. Two Sally Rooney adaptations with gorgeous lead players, phenomenal sex scenes, and the charming clouds of Ireland. They’re not the same show by any stretch of the imagination, but BBC Studios isn’t shy about relying on the Rooney formula. That method worked, so why change it?
Everyone loved Normal People. Since the limited series won’t be getting a second season (minus that brilliant Fleabag priest crossover), just expand the Rooneyverse. Paralleling the mid-season jump to Italy in Normal People, Conversations sends its players to Croatia, a sunny seaside escape with smocked dresses, hair curled by sea salt, and endless chilled glasses of rosé. Oh, and the best part: two secret lovers creeping around into each other’s beds after dark. We’ve seen this before. And yet, it’s just as intoxicating the second time over.
Where does it falter? Sorry, there’s no Paul Mescal, and a mullet-sporting Joe Alwyn pales in comparison. He does his best, but if there’s one aspect I could change about Conversations with Friends, it would be the male lead of the show. Alwyn’s muted performance isn’t distractingly bad. It’s just not as intoxicating as Mescal, with his chain and hopeless romanticism. There’s no star-crossed lovers aspect, either, but that’s not the point of the show.
Don’t let the lack of a whirlwind romance stray you from watching until the bitter end. The true heart of Conversations With Friends is the sometimes platonic, sometimes romantic, always gripping relationship between Bobbi and Frances. Focus too hard on the Nick/Frances of it all and you’ll lose sight of the real aching desire between these two, who yearn to figure out where they stand with each other.
You’ll notice the seeds of that dynamic planted in the first episode of the series, in which Bobbi and Frances work on their final months of college together. They snooze on one another’s shoulders, watch TV while it endlessly pours outside, make a last minute decision to snag a few bottles of wine to get tipsy at home. They can’t rid themselves of the tension in their relationship. Every moment they share is intimate.
Moreover: yes, Conversations has hot sex scenes. But it also has comfy-cozy university life, which is more fun (it’s not all homework!) to watch than you’d probably expect. When we hear “coming-of-age romance,” perhaps we’re not programmed to expect stormy days with tea, studying, and gossip at home. But that’s the charm of Conversations.
As sexless, action-heavy, traumatizing, violent movies continue to reap billions at the box office, these subtle, intimate shows feel quietly revolutionary. Only time will tell if Conversations will be as big as Normal People, but it makes another great argument for more hushed tenderness to crash into the zeitgeist as a way to balance the overt maximalism (Marvel, scammy biopics, even the dramatics of Bridgerton) in entertainment.
Conversations With Friends premieres May 15 on Hulu.