The week in TV: Conversations With Friends; The Time Traveler’s Wife; Floodlights; Elon Musk: Superhero or Supervillain?

·6 min read

Conversations With Friends (BBC Three) | iPlayer
The Time Traveler’s Wife (Sky Atlantic)
Floodlights (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Elon Musk: Superhero or Supervillain? (Channel 4) | All 4

You can only hope that Trinity College Dublin has Sally Rooney on some kind of marketing retainer. Just like lockdown mega-hit Normal People, the new 12-part BBC Three adaptation of her debut novel, Conversations With Friends, is partly set at the university. Normal People writing-directing personnel are on board (Alice Birch, Lenny Abrahamson), and there are recurring Rooney themes: fractured bonds; ideological tussles ranging from patriarchy to polyamory; and, of course, brainy, ruinously precious millennials for whom even flirting is doomed to turn exhausting and weird. Sample chat-up line: “So are you a committed communist?”

One Rooney motif is relationship imbalances, and this time the focus is on age and wealth (for an avowed Marxist, Rooney doesn’t seem above a fascination with dosh). Students and former lovers Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) become embroiled with her author Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and actor husband Nick (Joe Alwyn), youth-sucking vampires who all but purr with self-satisfaction. Frances and Nick embark on an affair: painful text messaging leading to soulful sex that culminates in Frances weeping. “It’s not real crying, I swear,” she says. “It sort of happened with Bobbi. She said it was a symptom of my repressed nature.”

It’s unlikely CWF will have the seismic impact of Normal People. But it remains intriguing

The emotional sex scenes in Normal People sent out an important message: here were a young couple who liked and respected each other, unlike the hate and violence of so much porn. In Conversations With Friends, the tension between Frances and Nick, while realistic and tender, seems more social than sexual. At first, Alwyn doesn’t seem old enough for his role, but he does a superb job of exuding weak, handsome Nick’s spent human potential, with telling little puffs of unintentional cruelty. Nick mainly functions as a foil to Frances’s youthful vulnerability, which newcomer Oliver conveys beautifully, repressed erotic tears and all.

The real love story is Frances and Bobbi’s friendship, with Bobbi serving as an ethical marker for how far Frances has drifted: “Lately, it’s like I’m watching you disappear.” It’s unlikely CWF will have the seismic impact of Normal People: it drags on too much, a baggy melange of airless interactions and numbing pace. But it remains intriguing. As with Normal People, there’s the sense of elevated mundanity suddenly flooding with ragged emotion; of flawed individuals doing their best, one stupid mistake at a time.

What on earth happened with Sky Atlantic’s six-part television adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife (also a 2009 film)? Directed by David Nutter, with a teleplay from Steven Moffat (a fan of the book, he used similar themes for an episode of Doctor Who), it tells the story of Clare (Rose Leslie), whose soulmate, Henry (Theo James), reluctantly travels through time, arriving everywhere naked. “Time travel,” muses Henry. “It’s not a superpower, it’s a disability, it’s what’s wrong with me.”

That’s what he thinks. Frankly more concerning is when Henry visits child-aged Clare and he’s naked, lurking in bushes, asking for clothes, saying it’s their “secret”. Erm, what could possibly be misconstrued about such a scene? There’s even a gag about “grooming”, as child-Clare combs her My Little Pony. As adults, Clare straddles Henry and smoulders: “Haven’t I grown?” (looks down). “And I’m not the only one.” Later she cries: “I can’t help myself – my libido formed around you.”

There’s no suggestion that Henry is attracted to children – he first meets Clare as a grown woman – but the way it’s handled is tone-deaf. Elsewhere, Henry’s early trauma is poignantly depicted, and while there’s the intrinsic problem of Clare’s passivity – how waiting for Henry moulds her – Leslie and James at least try to bring Hepburn-Tracy-style grit and fire to their exchanges. Despite this, and even with Moffat on board – he famously updated Sherlock Holmes – TTTW isn’t very good. Aside from dubious grooming jokes, it has a dated, sluggish feel, as though filmed through dirty gauze.

In the same week, one-off BBC Two drama Floodlights, written by Matt Greenhalgh, directed by Nick Rowland, told the story of the real-life child sexual abuse of Crewe, Bury and Sheffield United football player Andy Woodward by youth coach Barry Bennell, who abused many other boys in different clubs over the decades.

Woodward went public in the Guardian in 2016 (Bennell is currently serving 34 years). Early scenes in the Crewe Alexandra youth squad, where young football-mad Andy, portrayed with vivid, people-pleasing sweetness by Max Fletcher, is manipulated by Bennell (a mesmerising, malevolent Jonas Armstrong) are almost too unbearable to watch. Bennell also grooms Woodward’s parents (Morven Christie and Steve Edge), and as a self-styled “star-maker” bullies Woodward into accepting the abuse: “You want to be my favourite, don’t you?”

Gerard Kearns (Shameless) plays the older Woodward, first as a dead-eyed professional footballer, later as bottled-up stress makes him practically suicidal. Sometimes the narrative feels jerky and truncated: one gruesome omitted detail is that Bennell married Woodward’s sister. However, there’s much to admire in the stillness and darkness – symbolic floodlights flashing off – and the integrity of all the performances. This is a worthy companion piece to the 2021 docuseries Football’s Darkest Secret, and a powerful testament to Woodward’s courage.

In the Channel 4 documentary Elon Musk: Superhero or Supervillain?, an attempt is made to delve into the psyche of the “bad boy” billionaire. Rightly identified as “polarising” and “self-promotional”, the PayPal/Tesla electric car entrepreneur and world’s richest person recently hit the headlines for putting in a $44bn bid for Twitter – though that’s currently on hold while the two sides argue about the percentage of spambots on the platform.

Musk builds rockets so that, one day, humankind can colonise Mars as a “multiplanetary species”. Nice – though maybe Musk should deal with earthly concerns first: namely, as examined here, the ongoing racial harassment suits filed by workers at his Tesla plant in California. This is an absorbing programme and a brave one: Musk is far from “super” about criticism. Ultimately, he comes across as a tragic character Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Armstrong might get together to invent, before realising he’s too far-fetched. “Let’s make him bid to buy Twitter.” “Now steady on!”

What else I’m watching

Channel 4
Katherine Parkinson (Rachel in BBC One’s Here We Go) stars in this ruthlessly candid Australian comedy about a lawyer and mother whose divorce leads her to boldly experiment with dating apps, using a spreadsheet to keep track.

The Prince’s Master Crafters: the Next Generation
Sky Arts
Admit it: you’re fascinated by wood carving, ironwork and weaving. Jim Moir (AKA Vic Reeves) hosts a new series in which amateurs are tutored by masters of dying traditional arts and crafts, which Prince Charles is working to preserve.

Joe Wicks: Facing My Childhood
The celebrity trainer was awarded an MBE for keeping British kids healthy during the pandemic with livestreamed fitness routines. Here, he talks frankly about his troubled childhood and his parents’ mental health issues.