There’s an instant sense of familiarity in the opening scenes of Conversations with Friends, the follow-up series to lockdown smash-hit Normal People.
Both are adaptations of Sally Rooney novels. We know this world, we’ve been here before, and we like it.
Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson is back with the same creative team, and there is the same languid and gauzy nostalgic feel, full of establishing and evocative shots of Dublin, and Trinity College’s front square.
Of course, it would be practically impossible for Conversations with Friends to emulate the runaway success of Normal People.
It went stratospheric; clocking up 62 million views on the BBC iPlayer in 2020. It skyrocketed the careers of Paul Mescal (Connell) and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne), won countless awards, and made O’Neills GAA shorts a cutting-edge fashion statement.
Part of the show’s success may be attributed to the fact that it aired in lockdown when we were stuck at home, with nothing to do but watch TV, garden and take endless 5K constitutional walks.
In that context, Sally Rooney’s world seemed exceptionally enticing – filled with holidays abroad, socialising, college parties, intimacy, and most important of all, freedom.
Many of our favourite lockdown destination TV shows have failed to make as big an impact outside of the pandemic.
While Conversations with Friends may not have such a captive audience (quite literally), the first two episodes suggest that the series might be as strong as its precursor.
It is beautifully shot, and exquisitely directed, and the acting performances, particularly by Alison Oliver, are exceptionally strong. But, perhaps, the central story is not as relatable as the first love at the heart of Normal People.
In Conversations with Friends, the relationships are much more complicated. Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Long) are best friends who previously dated, and now recite spoken-word poetry together. Not your average couple, in other words.
The two Trinity graduates start a ménage-à-quatre with an acclaimed author, Melissa (Jemima Kirke), who meets them at one of their gigs, and her husband actor Nick (Joe Alwyn).
Bobbi is drawn to Melissa, while Frances and Nick embark on an affair. Things are convoluted and messy: friends and lovers fall out, people get hurt.
It has to be said that the characters at the centre of this series are a lot less likeable than those in Normal People.
Frances is pretentious, arch, and, at times, monumentally judgmental, but she is also capable of moments of extreme vulnerability and self-doubt.
It is Alison Oliver’s skill as an actress that she makes these contradictions and shifts in her character seem entirely credible.
Sasha Long is faultless as Bobbi, and Jemima Kirke (of Girls and Sex Education fame) deftly conveys a woman quietly struggling to keep her life, career and marriage together.
Yes, there is a good deal of sex, but it feels less raw and intense than the scenes in Normal People. Perhaps, that is because there is not the same visceral chemistry between Oliver and Alwyn.
Or maybe we’re just a bit more used to the sexual shenanigans this time around. My main reservation about the entire series regards Nick.
As a character, he is so acquiescent and emotionally repressed that you sometimes want to reach into the screen and shake him.
It seemed clear why Marianne would love Connell; he was emotionally inarticulate yet still highly sensitive to his feelings. He was also profoundly intelligent, loved his mother, respected women, had a heart of gold, and was a dab hand at GAA.
Nick is an inward-looking D4 actor who is passive, melancholy, and a truly terrible conversationalist. In many ways, it was hard for me to see his appeal.
On top of that, Alwyn simply does not possess the on-screen magnetism that Mescal had in spades.
But perhaps the complexity and unpredictability of both his and Frances’s connection, and Frances's respective relationships with Melissa and Bobbi will make the series compulsive. Either way, I imagine most of the country will be tuning in for more.
Conversations with Friends airs on RTÉ One on Wednesday, May 18.