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Of all the conversations in Conversations With Friends—the number of which is ironically slight—there’s one that remains with me. It’s a text exchange, one that references an off-screen, in-person chat between our tortured central lovers. Older, married-man Nick (Joe Alwyn) sends self-described “complicated” college senior Frances (Alison Oliver) a song. It’s Joanna Newsom’s “Peach, Plum, Pear,” the iconic piece of early-aughts freak folk that soundtracked a thousand depressive girls’ adolescence. (I am undoubtedly one of them.)
Frances, herself a depressive girl in the throes of late adolescence, seems not to know the song. Nor can she stand it: As Newsom sings “I’m a sensitive bore,” Frances appears offended and immediately shuts off the song. At which point I, too, was offended—how dare you silence one of our greatest bards, who’s just trying to bring some much-needed color to this drab, emotionally bereft diegesis?
On second thought—and third, and fourth, and, oh god, I’ve thought about this show far too much since my daylong marathon of its interminable 12 episodes—Joanna, be free. “Sensitive bore” suits Conversations With Friends to a T. But “blue and unwell,” a lyric Frances never got around to hearing, works just as well. Especially by the series’ end, that’s exactly how I felt, when the show asked me to do something unthinkable: believe that Nick is anything but the blandest, least interesting, most forgettable character on TV right now.
In fact, (almost) everything that is wrong with this series can be traced back to that. Why is he such a snooze?
(Warning: Spoilers lie ahead.)
Yes, the Joanna Newsom moment grates on me not because it’s a song I love cut short. Choosing to share a song like “Peach Plum Pear”—specific, illustrative, whimsical—with someone you love says much more about you, the sender. This is a song with unforgettable, evocative lines like “You were knocking me down with the palm of your eye” and “We were galloping manic to the mouth of the source.” It’s flirtatious and sexy, if your version of flirting is writing long letters you never send, and you have sex while wearing multiple layers of clothes.
Nick is flirtatious and sexy, I suppose, insofar as the show explicitly tells us he is. Read between the lines and you realize that Nick, whose other traits are “thirtysomething,” “married,” and “B-list actor,” is just a cipher. He is a hollow panel in the show’s romantic polyptych, a man whose job it is to introduce low-stakes drama into a young woman’s life and suffer no consequences for it.
The building blocks of Nick and Frances’ love affair (mutual interest in literature and art and horniness, I guess?) are nothing but Play-Doh that’s already been repurposed by another toddler. For it to make any sense that he’s sending along a song as singularly unique as this one—one you can’t even stream on Spotify!—the show needs to convince us that Nick is nothing more than a pretty plot device. But as a friend I had a conversation with—heh—said, this man is the male equivalent of “go girl, give us nothing.”
Maybe this blandness is unsurprising, because he’s played by Joe Alwyn, literally the most boring trophy boyfriend—I mean, celebrity—on Earth. But by Episode 8, we still know absolutely zip about Nick beyond him being an actor who loves his wife but also loves sleeping with a college girl. Why was he talking to Frances about Joanna Newsom? Why did he think of this song to send to her? How long has he been listening to Joanna Newsom? What are his thoughts on her marriage to Andy Samberg?
Nick has no thoughts, and never has. His presence in the story is to propel the show’s tortoise-paced love quadrangle, to occasionally show us his butt during anti-horny sex scenes, and to add to the show’s middling convo count by texting Frances at all hours of the night. The show hopes that the pointed inclusion of this wistful gem of a tune will be enough dirt to cover this shallow grave of character development. With negative amounts of context behind its presence other than atmosphere and time filler, “Peach, Plum, Pear” is an annoying presence to me for the first time in my life.
This was on my mind when I finished the show. Episode 12’s final conversation (and moment) was so frustrating as to make me yell and facepalm with one hand, then clicking “play” on Joanna Newsom with the other, Tumblr girl-style.
Since Episode 8, Frances has reconciled with her best friend/ex-girlfriend Bobbi (Sasha Lane, an exciting screen presence rendered improbably bland). Nick, refusing to leave his wife (Jemima Kirke, smartly making her perfect self scarce), and Frances end things. But! It’s not that easy! Because Frances and Nick have one final phone call about how they’ve both moved on and are finding some semblance of happiness in their lives. Hearing this from Nick, however, triggers something in Frances: “Nick, come and get me,” she says.
Come and get you? So you can do what? Listen to the rest of The Milk-Eyed Mender and offer no thoughts on it? Fail to talk about anything that doesn’t pertain to the prescribed sordid nature of your love affair? Because Nick never vouches for himself as a character, let alone a satisfying love interest, in the events following that link to the Joanna Newsom song. The text remains a stark contrast to the rest of the show’s disinterest in, and even inability to, eke out any semblance of humanity from a show intimately focused on humans.
The most frustrating part of this is that, freed from his blood-draining, dead-eyed grip, Frances seizes on the sting of “sensitive bore” to right the ship in Conversations With Friends’ final hours. It’s a slow but surprising pivot from the rest of the show’s deadened pace—I don’t want to say Joanna’s galloping beat inspired Frances, because that is giving literally everyone too much credit. But in those last few episodes, when Frances and Nick press pause on their whole mess, Conversations With Friends decides to make things happen.
Frances faints in the school courtyard because her period is intense! She has endometriosis, which is a rare diagnosis to explore on TV, so good job with that, fam. And now that she and Bobbi are in a non-toxic relationship, Frances is back out there having a real life with conversations and friends and maybe even conversations with them.
A good man-butt is hard to find, I guess. Nick did send Frances a song with the word “Peach” in the title, best known as the fruit whose emoji is code for a butt. But that’s a conversation for another time.