After the disastrous indulgence of ego that was Matthew Weiner's The Romanoffs, it'd be totally understandable to be wary of Amazon's newest anthology series, Modern Love. Adapted by Once's John Carney from the long-running, (in)famous New York Times column that aims to dissect the many minute and massive ways in which love changes us, Modern Love is a much safer bet for Amazon, with a built-in fanbase and access to some of the most beautiful and touching personal essay writing in the world. And while Amazon did bet correctly — Modern Love is a sweet, breezy watch that excels when it manages to dig into something a little more bitter — it's also a misnomer to call this series modern.
Each of the eight episodes focuses on a classic hit in the column's illustrious 15-year run, and each episode features an extremely glossy and rom-com ready cast that's bound to draw viewers who just want to watch beautiful people smooch. There's no shade there, the quality of acting genuinely elevates otherwise trite retellings of complex and incisive source material. Catherine Keener and Dev Patel have insane (platonic) chemistry in an episode about a journalist whose profile of a young tech genius brings him back in touch with his first love. Hot Priest — just kidding, I mean Andrew Scott — is incredibly moving as one half of a gay couple who struggles to connect with the woman whose baby he hopes to adopt. Tina Fey and John Slattery shine as a long-married couple who are bitterly inching towards not believing the worst of each other. Anne Hathaway plays a bipolar woman with such frenetic energy that both Anne Hathaway haters and lovers will walk away satisfied — despite the fact that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend handily laps everything this episode tries to do.
Again, as far as casual viewing goes, pretty people moving through New York City with the confidence of someone who knows they are the protagonist of their own story is a pleasant way to spend a weekend. But anyone who is turning to the show for an actual exploration of modern love will walk away disappointed. All the episodes — even the one that features a gay couple — focus on heterosexual relationships, whether platonic, familial, romantic, or a weird mix of the three. And while there's a decent range of diversity on screen, there's a distinct plug-n-play, colorblind quality to it because there's not enough time in each episode to delve into how POC perspectives on love can (and do) drastically differ from their white counterparts.
But perhaps most egregiously of all, Modern Love, the television show, sands down the sharp, cutting, and often brutally introspective edges of Modern Love, the column. As any good editor of essay writing will tell you, nothing cheapens a personal experience more than a tidy conclusion that comes perfectly wrapped in a bow. That's a sign that the writer is more interested in presenting themselves as the hero of the piece and hasn't fully experienced or understood the ripple effects of their actions. It's a mistake that every single person who has attempted a personal essay makes without fail, and that's why Modern Love, the column, has gained such a prolific reputation. It's a column filled with people who deeply understand the ways in which they messed up, and the ways in which it's possible to go on in the face of failure.
In the series however, the weakest episodes of the show eschew that imperfect, bittersweet human understanding for a breezy binging experience. Julia Garner stars as a young woman with "daddy issues" (this pulled directly from the synopsis which, lol) who after one magical conversation with a much older coworker, is freed to believe in herself. Sofia Boutella and John Gallagher Jr. play a pair who get stuck in the ER on their second date and miraculously come out of the experience still wanting to talk to each other — despite the fact that she "live-blogged" (again, what year is this?) their debacle. Cristin Milioti plays a pregnant young woman who realizes her doorman is her rock, in an absolutely fantastical scenario where Laurentiu Possa's doorman has no other drive in life other than to see his young ward happy. In perhaps the biggest waste of onscreen talent, Jane Alexander and the (amazing! incredible! iconic!) James Saito play a couple who find new love in their 70s, only for their story to end in an inevitable funeral which then transitions into 20 minutes of following Alexander run all over the city and unknowingly cross paths with all the other characters from the anthology. Unsurprisingly, this wildly saccharine episode is Modern Love's last (and the only one that can't be watched out of order).
Ultimately, your enjoyment of the series will depend on how much time you really want to spend with these characters. Modern Love (the TV show) is escapist fantasy-filled NYC apartment porn and filled with the kind of people who, even when their struggles are deeply relatable, are always going to land on their feet. Modern Love (the column, and only at its best) is a visceral and damning deconstruction of human relationships that revels in change, growth, and a surprisingly joyful optimism. Maybe you'll come for the glossy rom-coms, hopefully you'll stay and dive deep into the nuanced prose that inspired them.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5
Modern Love premieres Friday, Oct. 18 on Amazon Prime.