A wild whirlwind of a mess, without any coherence, without even a guiding principle.
In 1967, The Beatles appeared on “Our World,” the first television special to be broadcast globally. 350 million people listened to them as they sang “All You Need Is Love,” a flower-power anthem of seemingly blissful simplicity. All you need is love. Love is all you need. Zoom out from the chorus, though, and there’s more complexity. Unconventional meter, surprising musical shifts, lyrics that hint at cynicism while somehow remaining broadly, vaguely optimistic. It’s a weird song, and it’s the weirdness that makes its central argument—that love is all you need—seem plausible. “All You Need Is Love” is just under four minutes long, and it makes that argument more convincingly, and with greater complexity, than Amazon’s “Modern Love” comes close to doing in its eight 30-minute episodes.
Love isn’t actually all you need—not in life, where you also need health and home and safety and, if you’re lucky, a therapist, and not in art. “You’ve Got Mail” is also about the economy. “Pride and Prejudice” is about pride, prejudice, and hey, also the economy. Even “Romeo & Juliet” is about more than just love, and in fact is about how, in addition to love, you need parents who aren’t in a blood-feud and definitely need more information before you make very big decisions. “Modern Love” could be about more than love. At its best moments, and in its best episodes, it is about more than that, but it’s almost as if those moments escape from a show determined to keep them hidden away. Adapted from the New York Times column of the same name, primarily by creator John Carney (“Sing Street,” “Once”), the series attempts to transform essays into short plays, remaining needlessly faithful to detail without showing the same fealty to the emotional untidiness of some of those essays. “Modern Love” is not about love, the tie that binds, the complicating force, the journey. It’s about capital-L Love, the brand, the word with a key demographic. And that’s a crying shame.
It’s not easy to pin down where exactly this show went wrong. Sometimes, it’s the choice to column to adapt: It will probably not surprise anyone that the Julia Garner-starring “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” feels like a relic, though it may surprise you to know that the original, published in 2006, is considerably less retro and regressive than its adaptation. Sometimes it’s the angle taken: “Hers Was a World of One,” Carney’s adaptation of the Dan Savage column “DJ’s Homeless Mommy,” strips out nearly all the messiness and ugliness and heartache of the original in favor of showing us a manic pixie pregnant girl (Olivia Cooke) butting heads with “Fleabag”’s Andrew Scott as a Savage stand-in. Sometimes, it’s an apparent rush to get to the capital-L love parts without taking the time to lay the groundwork: “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” adapted from a column by Ann Leary about her marriage with husband Denis, is most interesting when it shows the couple (Tina Fey and John Slattery) struggling to communicate what they want, or even understand what that might be, but there’s no time to really sit in those moments, because we’ve got a happy ending to reach and we’re on a tight schedule. (It’s still one of the stronger episodes, for all that.)
The successes, minor and major, somehow make the missteps even more frustrating, because the ingredients for all the episodes are pretty similar. You take a column about someone’s personal experience, add a great cast, and attempt to dramatize that experience in 30 minutes. (Minus a few minutes lots of dreamy shots of New York being very only-in-a-movie-New-York, with cute encounters at coffee carts and lengthy interludes on park benches.) Yet somehow, only two are unabashed successes. The middle ground is held by the Leary episode, the rushed but charming “When Cupid is a Prying Journalist” (Catherine Keener, Dev Patel, two stories of lost love), and the refreshingly simple “At the Hospital, an Interlude of Clarity” (John Gallagher, Jr. and Sofia Boutella, sex injury) all of which stumble but still achieve moments of honesty or loveliness. But there are two episodes which, were they the only two in the season, would make “Modern Love” one of the most enjoyable shows of the year.
The first is, appropriately, the first episode of the series. (It’s followed by “Cupid,” then the other standout episode; “Modern Love,” like many a bad date, doesn’t actually reveal that it’s not worth your time until you’re almost halfway through.) “When the Doorman is Your Main Main” could easily have gone the way of “So He Looked Like Dad,” but sharp focus and a rich central performance prevent it from veering off into the land of the creepy. Maggie’s (Cristin Milioti) building has a doorman, Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa); Guzmin makes snap judgments about Maggie’s boyfriends, and some combination of his intensity and her investment in his opinions seems to drive her suitors away. But of course it’s more complicated than that. “Doorman” doesn’t care about the boyfriends. It cares about two things: Maggie’s personal journey, and the beauty and importance of friendship and community. Milioti gives a pitch-perfect rom-com performance, her anchor firmly embedded in a deep well of emotion; the romances are with herself and with this person many other people might sail right past. It’s the best example of what this series could be, and what the best anthology shows all are: a short story brought to life on screen, quick but unmistakably whole.
The other standout is more of an outlier, but all the stronger for it. In “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am,” Anne Hathaway plays Lexi, an ebullient woman who, as we meet her, is going long in a dating profile. Her profile is, in fact, episode-length. She introduces herself to potential matches by retelling the story of the time she went to the grocery store craving peaches and walked out with a date (with Gary Carr of “The Deuce”). The woman in the grocery store is a real-life “Gilda,” decked out in sequins and throwing herself into the sheer pleasure of being alive, but by the time she gets home, Gilda has walked out on her, and she’s someone else. Hathaway and Carney, who directs this episode, wisely invest in the emotional reality of Lexi’s story, but abandon realism when it comes to the way in which her story is told; the result is an episode that boomerangs as Lexi does. It’s a riot of color and sound in one moment, a flat, gray landscape the next, a choice that shows both understanding and respect for the reality of her mental health journey. Unlike every other chapter in this anthology, there’s some real style and thought put into the filmmaking here, and also unlike every other chapter, it manages to approach something profound. (Hathaway is, unsurprisingly, excellent.)
The Hathaway episode also stands out because it doesn’t blow past the rough, complicated stuff in favor of something fortune-cookie simple. That’s not a good quality in any series, let alone one that’s entire reason for being is to get into the intricacies of human relationships. At this point, the temptation to take a cue from the series is strong; I’d love to skate right past the reductive, borderline insulting finale, an adaptation that reduces its source material to something that has the emotional complexity of a pharmaceutical commercial, with a bunch of unnecessary bows slapped on at the end. “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap” doesn’t waste its time on things like nuance or thought; why should anyone writing about it do any more?
If “Doorman” is the best version of what “Modern Love” should be, and “Take Me as I Am” is a fever dream of what it could be, then “The Race” is an encapsulation of what it is at its worst. If nothing else, it cheapens the flashes of insight and honesty which preceded it, by underlining what the goal was all along: not to explore love, but to push the “Love!” button over and over again, yanking out tears and sighs like a hand straining up through the bottom of a broken vending machine. Sure, it could pay the dollar, develop some characters and relationships, and earn them the right way, but why bother? Either way, it gets what it wants.
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