Critics Are Slamming ‘Conversations With Friends’ for Being Uneventful, but What if That’s the Whole Point?
CWF functions as proof that introverted narrators make for strong books and weak TV shows. However, I applaud the show for staying true to its identity and not trying to be something else.
In a scene from Conversations With Friends, Nick (played by Joe Alwyn) tells Frances (played by Alison Oliver) that people tend to find him “a bit cold and not very fun,” and Frances responds by saying that people tend to have the same feelings toward her. One can’t possibly expect two main characters with such bland traits to captain a storyline with any promise, which may explain much of the poor feedback viewers have given Sally Rooney’s second TV adaptation since its release on May 15.
The Guardian described the series as “an aggressively uneventful affair stuffed with meaningful looks and strained silences.” The reviewer wondered: “Why doesn’t anyone speak? Why can’t anything happen?” The Washington Post went as far as to write: “So snoozy you’re better off taking a nap.” But, as a longtime Sally Rooney fan and a longtime devil’s advocate, I’m here to defend the TV adaptation against these criticisms.
For some background, Conversations With Friends follows college students Bobbi (played by Sasha Lane) and Frances as their lives entangle with those of an older, married couple, Melissa (played by Jemima Kirke) and Nick. With a backdrop of gloomy Dublin, we see the fragility of these relationships as their players tightrope over the chasm between their differing social and financial positions. As Frances begins an affair with Nick, she struggles not just with the agonizingly philosophical discrepancies between right and wrong, but with the very notion that her actions have real consequences.
It doesn’t use sex scenes and scandal to spit up a cheap version of itself more apt to compete with shows like Bridgerton and Sex/Life, but instead uses them to help us understand these self-pitying, sadsack characters — and eventually root for them.
Those who have read the novel, or any Sally Rooney novel, are likely familiar with Rooney’s simple writing style. Her stories are defined less by the events that happen to characters and more by the ways the characters process and respond to these events. She writes about action in Conversations With Friends by using pared-back sentences such as “I kissed him. He let me.” But as her characters process the action, she writes with more analytical tack, spinning out convoluted sentences such as “At times I thought this was the worst misery I had experienced in my life, but it was also a very shallow misery, which at any time could have been relieved completely by a word from him and transformed into idiotic happiness.”
The complex thought processes of Rooney’s characters has proven challenging to translate to television; therefore, when we watch the show without this background knowledge of her writing style, we miss the intricate, almost torturous web of social and political analysis injected into every simple action. Now — a delayed disclaimer. I am by no means in a position to stand up on the “I’ve read the book” soapbox and preach to the masses about how “It’s not boring; you just don’t get it.” Because let’s face it: these characters are dull, and they’ll tell you that themselves. And when we don’t have the luxury of reading the narrator’s inner monologue, mapping our way through the underscrub of Frances’ mind, we are left with a bareboned version of this story that is, admittedly, less vivid.
A Vanity Fair headline states “Conversations with Friends Isn’t Quite Loud Enough,” and to this I’ll argue that it’s not meant to be loud. I view the idleness of the show’s events as a reflection of Frances and her own passivity. She hesitates to declare a personality for herself so that she can live her life in a way that will never disturb the world around her. Bobbi is constantly accusing her of not saying what she’s thinking — an action (or lack of) that the show seems to emulate.
The same thing applies to Nick. While fans have slammed Alwyn for “making Nick so boring,” it goes unnoticed that Nick is, as it happens, an incidentally boring character — at least at surface level. In the novel, after Bobbi and Frances first meet Nick, Bobbi privately criticizes Nick for “hardly opening his mouth,” to which Frances replies: “He had a humorous silence about him.” It’s unfair to blame Alwyn and Oliver for their characters’ awkward, stiff conversations, as that is a defining part of their relationship in its beginning stages.
CWF functions as proof that introverted narrators make for strong books and weak TV shows. However, I applaud the show for staying true to its identity and not trying to be something else. It doesn’t use sex scenes and scandal to spit up a cheap version of itself more apt to compete with shows like Bridgerton and Sex/Life, but instead uses them to help us understand these self-pitying, sadsack characters — and eventually root for them.
So, maybe all these negative reactions aren’t the sum of some bad screenwriting. Maybe this particular show is just about two people who are a bit cold, and not very fun.