The new Sally Rooney adaptation is well acted and nice to look at, but it’s no Normal People. Elsewhere, The Time Traveler’s Wife gives us the creeps
Imagine what life would sound like if real people spoke like characters from a Sally Rooney series. We’d drive ourselves up the wall. We’d get nothing done, and the world would probably cease to exist.
In Conversations with Friends (RTÉ One), a sort of spiritual successor to the sublime Normal People, a narcissistic quartet of beautiful eejits communicate with one another via cautious stares and whispery non-sequiturs.
Every now and then, someone looks as though they are about to say what they really mean and/or do something that almost makes them likeable. Every now and then, it comes alive — but only for a second.
It sounds harsh, but Conversations with Friends is an outrageous letdown. Lest we forget, Normal People — the lockdown television smash of 2020, and a richly devised, deeply affecting portrait of agonising Irish adolescence — was a triumph. This diluted and oddly misshapen follow-up, based on Rooney’s debut novel, bizarrely bears all the hallmarks of a difficult second album.
It’s the same team as last time. Element Pictures produce; Lenny Abrahamson co-directs. Conversations with Friends looks, talks, breathes, dresses and walks — nay, crawls — exactly like its victorious predecessor. But its plot (Trinity performance poets meet and fall for an older married couple — everyone gets jiggy with it) is substantially weaker.
Tasteful sex scenes
Therein lies the biggest problem: you can round up all the talent in the world, and God knows this thing is bursting with it, but if the story isn’t up to scratch, and the characters are about as appealing as a fart in an elevator, then you’re in trouble.
Six hours of television is more than it deserves. It’s nicely acted and handsomely photographed, and the tasteful sex scenes — as big a component here as last time — are extraordinarily well done, and never feel like they have been tacked on for the sake of it.
But Conversations with Friends moves at an excruciatingly slow pace. A bit like Normal People, says you — maybe, but that series also employed both heart and dramatic intensity.
I’m a third of the way through this series, and already it’s plain to see that the material has been stretched within an inch of its life. Newcomer Alison Oliver is very good as final-year student Frances Flynn, our listless, anxious lead whose dalliance with married actor Nick Conway (Joe Alwyn) forms much of the basis for everything that happens here.
Trouble is, Frances is a bit of a wreck-the-head, and Oliver’s protagonist takes mopey, youthful solipsism to spectacular new lows. She is impossible to root for, as is her best mate and former lover Bobbi Connolly (Sasha Lane), who berates Frances at every available opportunity.
Then we have Jemima Kirke’s Melissa Baines, a famous writer who does things like inviting complete strangers into her home — and on holiday — without knowing anything about them. Dialogue is both strained and spare. None of these people bear any sort of resemblance to real-life human beings. It’s phenomenally dull, basically. I’ll keep watching, because I have to, but I’m not pleased about it.
Sticking with matters of the heart, Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat has only gone and adapted Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife (Sky Atlantic) for the small screen. And guess what? It’s worse than the film version.
This time around, Theo James is Henry, the dashing librarian with a rare genetic disorder that makes him travel through time. Rose Leslie is Clare, the long-suffering partner whom he initially meets when he is an adult, and she is a child. And, um, that’s the bit I’m struggling with. I liked the book, and I tolerated the film. I don’t recall either of them being this… icky.
Alas, Moffat’s over-egged, cack-handed and unintentionally hilarious display is a disaster, its soapy mishandling of the novel’s central conceit so inherently problematic and messy that I can’t quite believe it made it this far.
Moving swiftly along, The Liffey (RTÉ One) is exactly the sort of series you think it is. Scripted by Joseph O’Connor and narrated by Angeline Ball, this admirable six-part documentary provides an informative and, for the most part, insightful snapshot of the people whose lives and livelihoods are bound by the titular river.
Part one shines a light on protection and defence. We hear stories from crew members on board the LÉ William Butler Yeats, returning to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay after a month at sea.
Elsewhere, Dublin City Council drainage supervisor David Greene provides an exemplary underground history lesson on the Poddle, and water rescue instructor and firefighter Conor Morris conducts a major drill to show us what it’s like to save someone from the river. Fascinating stuff, even if it occasionally plays out like a glorified ad for the Naval Service and Dublin Fire Brigade.
Finally, a word on How I Met Your Father (Disney+), a lackadaisical spin-off of US sitcom smash How I Met Your Mother. You know the routine. Everything is the same except for the characters. Hilary Duff portrays a hopeful singleton, Sophie, who is desperately seeking her soulmate in New York City.
Kim Cattrall plays older Duff who, some 30 years down the line, tells her off-camera son how she and his dad, er, made him. There’s even a laugh track, which is ironic, given that there are no actual jokes.
It’s a pity, because the idea isn’t terrible, and the cast — a more diverse, affable crew than the first one — work hard. The only thing getting in their way is bad writing. I call it the Conversations with Friends problem.