This is a busy weekend for television and streaming: In addition to the fascinating and very worthwhile Watchmen, which debuts on HBO this Sunday, Netflix is dropping the Paul Rudd/Paul Rudd comedy Living with Yourself today, while Hulu’s releasing Looking for Alaska, a miniseries based on the John Green novel that’s accruing good buzz (I haven’t seen it). But Amazon Prime refuses to be left out in the cold! It’s got Modern Love, an eight-episode anthology series based on the New York Times column of the same name.
As you might have guessed from the title, Modern Love collects a batch of romance- and love-oriented stories, and as its Gray Lady pedigree would suggest, they’re all set in the wealthier, whiter climes of New York City. The column (which has already been anthologized in a book and adapted for a podcast prior to receiving the TV show treatment) features essays by various writers, each based on real-life experiences. The show spins those brief essays out into 30-minute films, and the result is that most of the episodes feel embellished and manufactured, in addition to containing that under-flavor of smugness that’s inherent in such an endeavor. There’s also a very palpable taint of Woody Allen hanging over the entire thing, which suggests that the show’s makers didn’t know how (or couldn’t be bothered) to find a new way of telling these sketch-like New York stories.
Unsurprisingly, the quality of episodes varies wildly. For me, the high point is “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” writer/director Sharon Horgan’s (Catastrophe) tale of a long-married couple (Tina Fey and John Slattery) who have forgotten how to be nice to each other. Less funny than incisive, the story is observational and wry, and its characters’ predicament feels authentic. The other episodes never attain this level of vitality; instead, they loll about in beige feel-good-ness and softball emotions. For example, in “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist,” a story about a dating-app inventor played by Dev Patel, two characters become smitten with each other as they swan about the zoo. They gaze at a pair of gorillas, and one murmurs to the other, “Love is so universal.” Pretty fucking profound.
That’s not the worst of it. Modern Love’s excruciating low point comes during “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am,” which fixates on Anne Hathaway’s cringingly emotive portrayal of a bipolar woman trying to find love. There’s singing and dancing at a Fairway market (hey, she’s up!), and Hathaway staring forlornly in a mirror (oh no, she’s down). Sometimes she goes from up to down within the same shot. It’s audacious, sure, but entirely enervating. The final episode (“The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap),” is very bad, too, telling a sappy, impressionistic story about two recreational joggers finding love late in life, before forgetting about them completely and jumping haphazardly between short reprises of the series’ preceding seven stories.
Maybe the show is for someone less cynical than me. These aren’t romcoms, to be sure—they’re rarely funny, and they aim for a sort of oversized-sweater, cup-of-warm-tea, leafing-through-a-catalog level of coziness that I just don’t respond to. But there are some interesting elements here and there, such as the Julia Garner/Shea Whigham May-December pairing in “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” (The episodes titles, taken directly from the newspaper column, can be rough going.) And “Hers Was a World of One” hits on some real friction between a gay man (Andrew Scott, terrific as usual) who’s hoping, along with his partner, to adopt the baby of a pregnant homeless woman (Olivia Cooke). The problem is that Cooke’s character is not actually connected to any sort of societal issue but is, instead, a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Vagabond who’s forsaken the boring comforts of a permanent roof in favor of a fun, not-dangerous-at-all life on the road.
In the end, I couldn’t help thinking how another show, High Maintenance, uses a similar idea to much better effect. That show consistently delivers these incredible, intensely emotional slices of life from the corners of the very same city, and its far more thorough tableau of representation notwithstanding, so much of High Maintenance’s power comes from those accumulated disconnected moments adding up to a much greater whole. Modern Love, I guess, is the version for those who think smoking pot is naughty? Those people are mostly bores; perhaps appropriately, this show is about mostly boring people.
Modern Love is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.