Review: Amazon’s ‘Modern Love’ will appeal only to the hopeless romantic 2
Catherine Keener plays the cupid in Dev Patel's story in Modern Love. Photographs from IMDb
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Review: Amazon’s ‘Modern Love’ will appeal only to the hopeless romantic

What about the cynics? The greatest good this show can do is be a gateway for people who haven’t gotten into the column.
Jam Pascual | Nov 02 2019

The goal of the original Modern Love column by the New York Times was simple: tell stories about love, and the manifold forms it can take.

That’s already a lot to work with—with a word as loaded as “love,” such a column could run the gamut of the entire human experience. A project that big risks losing its sense of cohesion, or even letting in a few mediocre stories (most essays that appear on Modern Love are submitted, and go through a screening and editing process). But the Modern Love column enjoys a success rare for columns in this age of digital content production. If anybody asks you what place long form has in the storytelling landscape, tell them to go to Modern Love. Try thinking of a mediocre Modern Love piece—you can’t.

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The best of the lot: Anne Hathaway's episode that deals with an extreme bipolar's struggles with relationships.

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Which is why it’s so curious that the Amazon Prime Video adaptation is so… average, considering the strength of its source material.

The first season of Modern Love has eight self-contained episodes. Like the column, it seeks to present to its audience a well-rounded, holistic understanding of love that accommodates experiences beyond the romantic.

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Young girl (Julia Garner) seeks a father figure (Shea Wigham) in this episode of Modern Love.

The strongest episode has to be “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am,” based on the essay by Terri Cheney. In it, Anne Hathaway plays an entertainment lawyer struggling with a severe case of bipolar disorder. The narrative zeros in on how it interferes with the love and dating aspects of her life. It’s Hathaway who does all the heavy lifting here. Her acting is so strong it’s almost as though the production and script revolve around the axis of her performance.

This is a pretty consistent thing with Modern Love. When an episode succeeds in reducing you to a sobbing, inconsolable mess, it’s because the acting is strong, or the actors were able to flex their powers in a scene of catharsis. “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive” hits hard because Tina Fey knows how to cry in a way that looks like she’s holding on to a flood inside her. “Hers Was A World of One,” a story about two gay men planning to adopt the child of an expecting homeless woman, draws half of its power from the plot, but the other half from the fact that Andrew Scott is such a stellar performer. The first episode in the series, “When The Doorman Is Your Main Man,” is well-directed and expertly placed, but works because of how well Christina Tucci and Laurentiu Possa play off each other’s energies. An episode like “At the Hospital, an Interlude of Clarity,” which is about a date that takes an unexpected trip to the emergency room, is weak because the acting is weak.

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"When The Doorman is Your Main Man" is about dating and motherhood.

It’s never the writing that stands out, which is unfortunate, because it’s the writing that makes the column so great. I’m usually not the type to pit the TV or movie adaptation against the original text—such arguments are pedantic and do little to consider the strengths and weaknesses of genres different stories can slip into. My issue with Modern Love is that it does… very little with the possibilities of TV (with the exception of “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am,” which employs, to great effect, Broadway flair and slice of life moments of quiet.). 

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Last chance at love: Jane Alexander and James Saito in this elegant episode on finding love --and losing it -- very late in life.

You can tell when an episode is pulling straight from the original text—bits of an essay are treated as monologues or speeches just to wrap a neat little bow around the story. And if each love story is its own special, bright-eyed thing, then shouldn’t each episode have their own distinct tone, feel and style? Netflix got that right with Love, Death and Robots. Amazon had more than enough equipment to approach the material in that way, but it didn’t. Each story feels cut from the same cloth.

Did I cry? Of course I did. But I cried because I’m a sap. I’m a sap who squeals at the mere sight of a held hand. I’m the target demographic for rom-coms whose climax is a kiss. It’s a shame that Modern Love, a show about more than romantic love, can only really appeal to the hopeless romantics. What about the cynics?

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John Gallagher Jr and Sophia Boutella goes on a bad date that makes a turn for the better.

At its best, Modern Love will make you soft, will make you fragile, will make your Grinch heart grow ten sizes larger. But it doesn’t always do that. There’s this one part in the final episode where the characters from each of the episodes cross paths in a missed-connections kind of way, implying that these great stories of love happen right under our noses, and we can see them happening if we were just more vigilant. It’s a cheap move. These stories don’t weave through each other like lattice on apple pie. They happen in their own worlds and contexts, contained and luminous, powerful on their own. Moves like that make Modern Love the kind of storytelling project it was not supposed to become—high production Hallmark.

 

Photographs from IMDb