Conversations with Friends. Hulu. Available Sunday, May 15, on Hulu.
First thing first: Conversations with Friends is not a collection of Ross and Rachel's greatest hits. It's not really about conversations, either. It's more of a generational collision over the meaning of sex and relationships, disquieting and discouraging regardless of which side of its generation gap you're from, but surprisingly engrossing.
Based on the 2017 book of the same name by Irish novelist Salley Rooney, Conversations with Friends stars Sasha Lane (Utopia) and British stage actress Alison Oliver as Frances and Bobbi, a pair of 21-year-old Dublin college students who are best friends, former lovers, and poetry-slam performers. (Their poems, all written by Frances, are egregiously—almost criminally—awful, though it's not at all apparent that this is supposed to be understood by any of the characters or audiences in the show.)
At one of their slams, they meet a thirtysomething writer named Melissa (Jemima Kirke), who likes their style, both literary and otherwise. Soon Melissa and her handsome but underachieving actor husband Nick (British actor-songwriter Joe Alwyn) are inviting Frances and Bobbi to dinners and weekend stays. From literally the first moments of their acquaintance, sex is in the air, starting with Bobbi's introductory confession to Melissa that she and Frances used to sleep together but: "We dropped the fucking but kept the poetry."
"That sounds like the wrong way around," ripostes Melissa coquettishly.
Melissa and Bobbi crush hard, but—at least in the seven (of 12) episodes of Conversations that I watched—get no further than a deep kiss. Frances and Joe, on the other hand, go both secret and deep, launching a steamy affair despite, or maybe because of, their mutual clumsy incoherence. If anything, it seems they finally have sex mostly because they've exhausted all attempts at conversation. "Are you attracted to my personality?" asks Joe. Replies Frances: "Do you even have one?" That's supposed to be a joke, I think, but it's dangerously close to the truth.
The messy ramifications of sex with friends—especially married friends—have been standard show-biz fodder since the invention of movies, if not the invention of sex. And even intergenerational sex has been thrashed out a good bit, from lampoons like Harold And Maude to the 1960s generation-gap warfare of The Graduate. Even so, Conversations has a compelling perspective on what happens when different generations encounter one another on the sexual frontier. If there's an exchange that sums up the show, it's Bobbi's astounded remark to Melissa and Nick upon visiting their home: "You two are such grown-ups!" Melissa's painfully rueful rejoinder: "I know."
Frances, callow in more ways than one (she's turned down offers to publish her poetry because she's a self-proclaimed communist—an easy ideology for a kid living on a generous allowance from her parents—who says of her doggerel that "I don't want to package it for people to own"), insists, for the sake of form, that she knows their affair is fleeting. But at night she cuddles the cell phone bearing his texts like the lovesick teenager she's not so far past being.
Nick, by contrast, is befuddled by her surprise that he has neither plans nor the desire to divorce his wife. They do share one disastrous common trait: Neither of them is smart enough about extramarital sex to lock doors of trysting rooms or employ contraception.
A show so stuffed with strained silences and meaningful gazes can work only with a superb cast, and Conversations is equipped with one. Kirke as Melissa, trying to ward off the boredom subsuming her tired marriage, projects a kind of emotionally vampiric menace. Lane's destructively glib Sasha is more of an anarchist, rolling conversational bombs into every tent. Alwyn and Oliver, tasked with making inarticulate blockheads into engaging characters, succeed magnificently. "You know, your whole silent thing makes everyone think you're enigmatic and interesting," Bobbi tells Frances. Second that.