San Francisco Chronicle

It’s not quite ‘Normal,’ but very steamy

- By Bob Strauss

A bold, yet sensitive, study of Irish Millennial­s coming of age, “Normal People” was one of the streaming era’s crowning achievemen­ts. Now that show’s creators have adapted another Sally Rooney novel, “Conversati­ons With Friends.”

It’s almost as good. Producer-director Lenny Abrahamson and scriptwrit­er Alice Birch infuse “Conversati­ons” with many of “Normal’s” virtues: smart young women in confusing romantic predicamen­ts, precise insights into aching personal flaws and complicate­d relationsh­ips, languid holidays under the southern European sun (Croatia in this case), some political consciousn­ess, and the steamiest Irish sex you’re ever likely to see. There’s also that naturalist­ic atmosphere that makes the smooth, profession­al control of the material by Abrahamson (and Leanne Welham, who directed five of the series’ 12 episodes on Hulu) feel alive.

If the new show’s characters, their issues and misadventu­res aren’t as imaginativ­e as those of its predecesso­r, well, it makes sense because “Conversati­ons” was Rooney’s first novel. But this effort, which is absorbing, persuasive and sometimes terribly moving, is enough to satisfy.

The point-ofview character is played by Alison

Oliver, a young

Irish actor making her screen debut. She brings some of that mousy/adventurou­s tension Daisy Edgar-Jones worked so well, but seems slightly, gratifying­ly tougher. She can play a victim of love and a victimizer, portraying many shades of selfishnes­s with redeeming hints of dawning self-awareness.

Oliver plays Trinity College English major Frances. She writes good spokenword poetry, which she performs with her best friend and former lover, Bobbi, an American classmate played by Sasha Lane (“Loki,” “American Honey”). They meet famous essayist Melissa (“Sex Education’s” Jemima Kirke) at a slam; she’s impressed by Frances’ writing, and Bobbi’s smitten at first sight.

But bisexual Frances is more intrigued by Melissa’s husband, the gorgeous, depression-prone actor Nick (“The Favourite’s” Joe Alwyn, longtime boyfriend of Taylor Swift). She’s a goner the moment he presses a cool beer bottle

against her flushed cheek, yet doesn’t want to be a homewrecke­r, she’ll have him know.

“My marriage has survived several affairs already, I just haven’t been a party to them,” Nick replies, and that’s all Frances needs to hear. The killer come-on line is true, actually; Nick is a sincere, if conflicted, guy, more in love than predatory when it comes to Frances. She greatly enjoys her first relationsh­ip with a man despite all the messy feelings it stirs up, and the show’s central drama orbits around how the hot affair impacts not only these two but also the other, occasional­ly understand­ing women in their lives.

A refreshing critique of open communicat­ion — or at least the interperso­nal tyranny it can generate — runs throughout “Conversati­ons.” Neither Frances nor Nick is particular­ly forthcomin­g with feelings, and Oliver and Alwyn are quite good at putting up public masks, then cracking them with subtle expression­s of anguish. This adds a layer of dramatic anticipati­on, so when they do dredge down deep, it’s extra impactful, as during a masterfull­y composed pub exchange at the start of episode 11.

Frances’ withholdin­g drives oversharer Bobbi nuts; she’s always demanding apologies for slights Frances often isn’t aware she made. Kudos to Lane for not coming off as childish during these instances (Bobbi’s polemic sarcasm at other times fills that bill). Besides, she’s often witheringl­y right about Frances. Funny about it, too, “Conversati­ons” has welcome bits of the wicked humor evident in Rooney’s books but absent from the earlier series.

This may not be the author’s most mature work, yet it shares with “Normal People” and her recent “Beautiful World, Where Are You” a keen capacity for judging characters while maintainin­g empathy to the point of love. This TV adaptation is a soap opera at heart, but its emotional intelligen­ce elevates the show into something really worth talking about.

 ?? Enda Bowe / Hulu ?? Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn in “Conversati­ons with Friends.”
Enda Bowe / Hulu Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn in “Conversati­ons with Friends.”
 ?? Enda Bowe / Hulu ?? Jemima Kirke (left), Sasha Lane, Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn in “Conversati­ons With Friends,” an absorbing series on Hulu.
Enda Bowe / Hulu Jemima Kirke (left), Sasha Lane, Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn in “Conversati­ons With Friends,” an absorbing series on Hulu.

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