’Conversations with Friends’, more of the same

Conversations With Friends. Yawn.

Like most sequels these days, Conversations with Friends is actually a remake. And on one level, you can hardly blame them. 

After the giddy high that The Tiger King initially produced, arriving as it did in the depths of the pandemic, we gradually realised quite how sordid the whole thing was. The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. 

So the arrival soon after of Normal People seemed to provide the world with a much needed palette cleanser. Here was something you could sit back, relax and enjoy in the knowledge that, for the next thirty minutes, your brain would be completely superfluous. 

No bile or vitriol, just polite, keen-to-be-educated and uniformly pretty youths shot against endlessly pleasing backgrounds, as they mumbled sweet nothings about nothing in particular for six glorious hours. 

The only way you could conceivably end up on the edge of your seat would be if you’d sunk so far back into it, you’d inadvertently slipped off entirely to land languidly in a pool on the floor. For many, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Normal People. Which is, like, ironic. You know, like the song.

But now that we’ve all come out of our enforced hibernation, mindless heritage television doesn’t have quite the draw that it did that lifetime ago. And now they’ve produced an exact replica. 

There’s the artistic longing and romantic yearning of youth, the trips back to the parents in the West of Ireland, and the would-be Joycean rejection of old Ireland in favour of continental cosmopolitanism. And all of it centred around the promise provided by the gateway that is the university. Specifically, Trinity College, Dublin.

What’s so baffling, about both Normal People and Conversation With Friends, is how off it all feels. Those parties and soirees with monied students and the would-be litterati, the seminars they go to and the conversations they have wherever they gather, are all clearly meant to evoke a charged bohemia where anything can happen. And out of which, who knows how many great novels and seminal poetry collections will any day now emerge.

But they don’t look, sound or feel anything like the fiercely bright and perennially competitive beacons of youth that they’re clearly supposed to be. What you get instead are what characters like that look and sound like to people who’ve never actually met anyone like that.

Or who met them so long ago, that their idea of what people like that look and sound like is so hopelessly idealised, that the result is entirely lifeless and quietly cringe-inducing.

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You.

And then there’s the dialogue. Which seems to have been produced by people whose only training was in watching a series of Aaron Sorkin set-pieces with the sound turned down. They’ve never heard what snappy dialogue is supposed to sound like, so all their characters end up delivering a series of one liners devoid of depth, charm or insight. No wonder there’s absolutely no chemistry between the principals. Nobody should have to deliver lines like that. 

And let’s not even get started on the poetry, or that production of the Tennessee Williams play. 

What was so impressive about I May Destroy You (reviewed by me earlier here), and its world of brilliantly bright young things battling with having to navigate their treacherous, threatening and deeply troubled world, was that the programme makers patently came from and inhabited the world they were depicting. So every scene rings effortlessly true. Likewise Can You Ever Forgive Me?, from 2018, and before that, Wonders Boys, from 2000. All of which cover similar terrain, and revolve around a cast of would-be and actual writers.

But, bafflingly, Normal People was a rip-roaring and stratospheric success. So, quite correctly and very understandably, they’ve gone and produced an exact replica, with another six hours (six hours!!) of more of the same. And for that, I’m afraid, we’ve only ourselves to blame. 

You can see the trailer for I May Destroy You here:

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I May Destroy You, the new HBO/BBC series

I May Destroy You

In the MacTaggart lecture she gave at the 2018 Edinburgh TV Festival, Michaela Coel, the star of Channel 4’s sunny sitcom Chewing Gum, told a stunned audience that she’d been sexually assaulted. She’d been out on the tear trying to avoid a writing deadline, and the following morning she began getting sinister flachbacks. It’s just such a night that her dazzlingly impressive 12 part dramedy series I May Destroy You circles around.

Coel plays Arabella, a thirty something doyenne of the Twitterati who is expected to build upon the success of her surprise best seller Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial by delivering its sequel to her agent and publisher. 

And, faced with a 9am deadline she does what any respectable writer would, and heads out on the town. The following morning, as the haze of the night before begins to slowly clear, she starts to get flashbacks of being raped.

Over the rest of the series, she and her closest two friends, aspirant actress, Terry and their gay partner in crime, Kwame, slowly piece together the events of the night. 

But the ‘event’ of that night is as much the backdrop as it is the focus for the stories that the series follows. As the characters experiment with drugs and sex, work and play in search of what they assume will be revealed as their true identities in a world where identities, certainties and all manner of lines have been seen to disappear ‘neath perpetually shifting sands.

What’s so exhilarating about the series is the way in which Coel steers, and frequently veers between comedy, pathos, ironic detachment, genuine pain and back again. And often, all in the course of the same, single scene.

We flashback to Arabella’s Italian boyfriend, and the trip she and Terry make to Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome. To her childhood, and her estranged and idealised father. And to an event at school that is looked back upon in a very differnt light. And all the while, everything is slowly but surely helping to create a picture of exactly what it was that happened that night.

The writing is flawless, both structurally and dialogue-wise, it’s impeccably put together and all the performances are note perfect. Most impressively, not to say unusually of all, Coel manages to deliver on the season’s finale, which I’ll obviously not spoil by saying anything about here.

I May Destroy you is that rare thing. A series that comfortably lives up to and delivers on all of the entirely justifiable hype.

You can see the trailer to I May Destroy You here.

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