BBC’s Conversations With Friends does longing and romance well, but it’s really its exploration of relationship dynamics and sexuality that sets it apart from Sally Rooney’s other series adaptation, Normal People, according to one Stylist writer.
Warning: this article contains minor spoilers for the first two episodes of BBC’s Conversations With Friends.
There’s a point in the first episode of Conversations With Friends when the charismatic and easygoing Bobby (Sasha Lane) turns to Frances (Alison Oliver) to talk about the new couple they’ve just met.
They’d been for dinner in Nick (Joe Alwyn) and Melissa’s (Jemima Kirke) grand house, having met Melissa at one of their open mic nights. In the married couple’s home, they’ve all politely bonded over creative careers, New York and the resounding whiteness of Ireland, but it’s safe to say that the equally electric Melissa and Bobby have connected.
They sit out in the garden, laughing over a cigarette, leaving Frances and Nick – the quieter of each of the two pairs – to bond. I say bond, what I really mean is shuffle awkwardly and exchange small talk. Frances and Nick are somewhat uncomfortable around each other initially, but it’s not because of the way they are as people – it’s down to the mutual attraction between them.
“I’m not great at these things,” Frances admits. “Me too,” Nick agrees.
When speaking about the actor-writer couple the day after, childhood sweethearts-turned-best-friends Bobby and Frances can’t help but discuss Melissa and Nick’s marriage. Bobby wonders if they’re well-suited: “She is interesting, conscious, smart. Like I can’t picture them having a wedding with a dress and those little people on the cake. Right?”
“Maybe they didn’t,” Frances says. “Maybe she wore a jumpsuit and they had a cheeseboard. I don’t know.”
So, while Bobby clearly has a crush on Melissa, it’s when they talk about Nick that one of life’s more intriguing themes presents itself. Frances reveals that she found him funny, which is quickly met with confusion from Bobby.
“He barely opened his mouth. Can you actually imagine them on their own? Fucking? Holding a conversation that lasts longer than two minutes?”
Frances is clearly used to Bobby’s emotive outbursts, and defuses the situation by saying: “I mean, who knows what actually happens between two people when they’re alone, Bobby?”
Really, though, this idea of one person in a pair being more interesting than the other is something that the characters – and the series itself – leans on. Conversations With Friends has been pegged as a follow-up to BBC’s lockdown hit series Normal People and, while it definitely is not (they follow two different novels, after all), comparisons are bound to be drawn.
The same goes for the relationships within the series. Frances and Bobby float through life performing spoken word poetry and befriending this new couple together. So, inevitably, comparisons are going to be drawn between the two pairs. Where Bobby thinks of Nick as boring, Frances clearly sees Melissa as being overbearing. But both complicated young women are hoarding feelings for the married couple in what can only be described as a slow-burning, narcissistic and messy entanglement.
There’s also a sense of creeping – yet realistic – sexual tension and sexuality that is dealt with well in the drama. When Bobby asks Nick about any conflicts he may have playing a gay character while being a straight man, he seems confused. “You make it sound like gay is a destination and bisexual is like a stop on the way. Not quite there,” Bobby says.
“I mean, Frances is bisexual. You’ve probably totally offended her.” Mild-mannered Frances, of course, is not offended but this scene remains one of the more provocative and important ones. It underlines a simple sentiment: that bisexuality is not to be sidelined as a concept, it is a sexual orientation held by many. And it’s Frances’ ensuing relationship with Nick – her first male sexual partner – that brings that topical theme more into the limelight in this series.
In a similar vein, both Conversations With Friends and Normal People manage to represent their wallflower characters incredibly well. Frances is confident in many areas of her life, but is shy, coy and silent in others – much like Normal People’s Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones). But that, as well as the romantic slow burn of the series, is really where the comparisons between these two Rooney adaptations begin and end.
There aren’t any major hard-hitting themes – sexuality is handled in a refreshingly blasé way – but the sense of longing is palpable and it’s all rather mellow and dreamlike. It’s the kind of series you can consume easily, that doesn’t really have much to say, but that’s the unexpected appeal of this show.
The first two episodes of Conversations With Friends air this Sunday 15 May at 10pm on BBC Three, with episodes airing weekly after that. All episodes will be available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
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