The benefit of an anthology series where each episode tells a new story is the promise of: If you don’t like this episode, you might like the next one! The problem is when all of those episodes (or stories) fail to impress, adding up to a disjointed and disappointing season of television. That’s much of the problem with Modern Love, a series that should’ve been a slam dunk. It’s based on the famous New York Times column, boasts a cast of incredibly attractive people (from Dev Patel to Sofia Boutella to Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott), features loads of talent behind the scenes (such as Sharon Horgan and Emmy Rossum), and revolves around the never-exhausted topic of, simply, “love.”
Throughout Amazon Video’s eight-episode season, which I viewed in full, Modern Love frequently falls flat. Sometimes it crawls toward something good only to suddenly fall backwards while other times it starts off bad and just gets worse, like a late-season installment that actually includes “daddy issues” in the episode’s description. Despite the various stories—a married couple on the brink of the end, an early date that ends up in the hospital, etc.—the series doesn’t actually feel much different from episode to episode. (It also doesn’t help that they’re practically verbatim from the column and that when they do stray, it’s to eschew the most interesting parts of the essays.) For the most part, Modern Love is concerned with bland, heterosexual “love” (the one exception is an episode about a gay couple who adopt a child from a homeless woman) and each installment coasts to its respective, predictable ending without much to say in between.
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The season’s opener, “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man,” focuses on Maggie (Cristin Milioti), a single woman in New York City, and her overprotective, fatherly doorman Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa). He disapproves of the men she dates (out of love, you see) and gives her unsolicited advice that frustrates her. It’s supposed to be a sweet story about father figures and single motherhood, but I kept being distracted by the fact that John Carney (who wrote and directed many episodes) fails to give Guzmin any sort of backstory—or really, any characteristics beyond “foreigner who likes being a doorman.” It’s hard to make every single person a multi-dimensional character when you only have about 30 minutes to introduce them and tell a full story, but when the balance is tipped so far in one direction, it’s also hard to get viewers to fully engage.
There are many hints of promise within Modern Love, such as “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” written and directed by Sharon Horgan and starring Tina Fey and John Slattery. Fey and Slattery, who are predictably good with the material, play off each other well as they go through the motions of counseling, depicting how small annoyances with your long-term partner can grow bigger and bigger, and showing how sometimes you have to really fight to keep a relationship alive. It’s fine, but it also elicited little more than a shrug. The same is true of “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist,” starring favorites Catherine Keener as the journo and Dev Patel as her subject, a tech guy who threw himself into working on his a dating app after a bad break-up. They have nice chemistry as they each detail the hurt of their past relationships, candidly sharing heartbreak. The narrative builds as it goes, introducing us to new twists, but it always feels obvious where it’s leading. Even while enjoying the episode, it still felt like it needed something more. I want so badly to root for the couples presented in Modern Love but was rarely given any reason to do so.
I wish the messiness of Modern Love was by design because it’s reflecting how messy love is but, unfortunately, that’s not the case. The third episode, “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am” stars Anne Hathaway as a young woman with bipolar disorder, sharing how her mental health affects her relationships. It’s part musical—”It’s a beautiful world for a bipolar girl!” goes one of the lyrics in a scene parodying sitcom openings—and part showcase for Hathaway, who is constantly proving her acting chops. It should be the standout episode but it’s instead shallow; more than anything, it makes one miss Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which did the musical-mental-illness schtick so good that it’s a wonder any other show would even try.
Modern Love isn’t bad—there are far worse ways to kill four hours on a weekend afternoon, and it’s an easy watch—but it doesn’t have many smart things to say about modernity or love. It’s mostly trite and retrograde. The best might be the season’s closer, “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap,” about a woman in her 70s who found love late in life, but that’s mostly because it only takes up about half the episode. (My biggest takeaway is that I would’ve liked more of the episodes if they all clocked in about 15 minutes; the more they went on, the more they lost me.) Then it segues into a montage, one that is clearly designed to elicit an emotional response but mostly it felt empty, making me wonder if perhaps I’m too cynical for a series like this. But I don’t think that’s the case: I’m not cynical about love, but cynical about the types of love stories that television, and media as a whole, are eager to portray. It’s the same ones, over and over, that promote a very cis-centric, heteronormative, colorblind sort of love. (Sure, you can easily praise the diverse casting in Modern Love, which is nice to see, but race absolutely plays a big factor in interracial relationships; to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.) But even outside of that, Modern Love just feels all fluff.