Emer McLysaght: Can Conversations with Friends live up to Ireland’s horniest ever TV show?

I’m nostalgic for Normal People’s lockdown thrills and still rooting for its central couple

It’s two years since Ireland’s horniest ever TV show debuted amid a global pandemic and unprecedented lockdown. Two years since people isolating with their parents fell foul of the news of a lovely new drama coming to RTÉ and they all settled in together to watch what one caller to Liveline described as “something you would expect to see in a porno movie”. Of course, all parents come with a kind of antenna for anything remotely horny. Trying to watch Sex and the City as a teenager involved constant lurching for the remote control as my dad wandered in and out on a determined mission to find the RTÉ Guide.

Normal People burst on to our screens in May 2020 with near irresponsible horniness, coming at a time when people were forbidden to fraternise. It was a perfect storm of a captive audience, the early heat of summer and a leading couple with on-screen chemistry the likes of which we'd never seen before. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones played out Sally Rooney's Connell and Marianne to perfection, and engaged in intimate scenes that were beautiful and consensual and sometimes educational. Poor old Joe Washyourhands Duffy might have been driven demented by the complaints, but Normal People was a cultural pandemic milestone that will stay with me for a very long time.

I remember experiencing at once a teenage invigoration and a middle-aged longing, all weighted down with regret

Those old feelings – I remember experiencing at once a teenage invigoration and a middle-aged longing, all weighted down with regret – are brought to the surface again as the second adaptation of a Sally Rooney book, Conversations with Friends, is about to be released. We already know there will be sex scenes. Cork newcomer Alison Oliver plays Frances, a young woman who embarks on an affair with a married man played by Joe Alwyn, aka Mr Taylor Swift. Ita O'Brien, the intimacy co-ordinator who worked on Normal People, was back on the set of Conversations with Friends to choreograph the amorous scenes with Alwyn and Oliver. O'Brien is basically a celebrity in her own right at this stage after the love affair between Marianne and Connell played out so beautifully on our screens.

Almost mechanical

We know now that those scenes are planned out so much that they are almost mechanical. When Bridgerton came steaming hot on the heels of Normal People in December 2020, its stars gave the same reports from the set – that the scenes are long and awkward and filmed in front of 20 crew members. Bridgerton was another potential parent trap, released as it was on Netflix on Christmas Day full to the gills of up-petticoat and down-britches action.

This time, with Conversations with Friends, we’re not such a captive audience but I suspect it will still be a massive talking point when it debuts on May 15th on BBC in the UK and Hulu in the US, and then May 18th on RTÉ. Even though I’ve read the book and know the story is very different to Normal People, I’m dearly hoping it’s as atmospheric and gut-punching.

As if to throw me back to May 2020 and titillate me, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones have been spotted together several times recently. They were pictured at the Coachella Music Festival in California, where Mescal wore his trademark teeny Kildare GAA knickers. They partied together again at the Met Gala in New York, which Mescal attended with his rumoured fiancee, American singer Phoebe Bridgers. My soul is romantic enough that I allowed my gaze to blur a little, and indulged in a brief fantastical daydream in which Marianne had joined Connell in New York after the end of Normal People and there they were living with enough love to keep the cockroaches at bay. What I was engaging in was a classic case of "shipping", a term that dates back to the internet of the 1990s, when fans online wished for a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully on The X-Files.

Consume alone

The whole 12 episodes of Conversations with Friends will be available via the BBC iPlayer before RTÉ starts showing it in two-episode chunks over six weeks, so poor old Joe can be forewarned and forearmed. It seems silly and prudish to be pearl clutching over a TV show, but I remember feeling that Normal People was a programme that should be consumed alone, without fear of awkwardness or embarrassment. It was too intimate and emotional to risk the experience being marred, and it could then be dissected scene by scene in a multitude of WhatsApp groups.

Will Joe Alwyn wear a polo shirt with such panache that Penneys and Dunnes are besieged?

Indeed, my Connell’s Chain group is still going strong. It was named for the single silver necklace Paul Mescal wore, a reference to Connell’s “Argos chic” look in Sally Rooney’s book. We collectively lost the run of ourselves so much that Argos reported a 56 per cent increase in searches for men’s necklaces in the wake of Normal People.

Will Conversations with Friends reach such dizzy heights? Will Joe Alwyn wear a polo shirt with such panache that Penneys and Dunnes are besieged? Life is short, so we can only hope the answer is yes.