WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
An anthology of eight stories about love in the modern world based on the New York Times column of the same name. In it, various authors from diverse backgrounds tell their own stories about love in all its many forms.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Anthology shows have made something of a comeback in recent years. Not just those that tell completely different stories from season to season (American Crime Story, The Haunting of Hill House) but those where each episode is its own short film. This isn't massively surprising as they are something of an answer to modern TV shows that play out less like an episodic serial and more like a ten-hour movie broken into ten hour-long segments.
Usually, however, these anthology shows fit quite firmly in the science fiction and fantasy genres – with Black Mirror, Philip K Dick's Electric Dreams and the rebooted Twilight Zone being some of the obvious standouts. The fact that Modern Love is an anthology show built around more grounded subject matter is almost enough to single it out as something special. Honestly, though, while it deals with matters of the heart rather than the heady ideas found in those other shows, there is something comfortably familiar about Modern Love, even as it exhibits all that's both good and bad about anthology shows along the way.
There is undeniably something incredibly refreshing about getting a complete story in the space of thirty-odd minutes. There is a bit of a callback to all eight stories in the final minutes of the last episode – in a manner that seems both deft and clumsy at the same time – but, fundamentally, each of these episodes explore different forms of love in complete stories that are built to be savoured rather than binged in bite-sized chunks.
There's also a real variety to the stories that stop them from becoming stale if you do happen to want to watch them in a couple of sittings rather than (as I did) over a few months. On the other hand, despite each story being based on the experiences of different real-life people, there is a certain conformity to the way they're presented.
No big surprise there when you consider that a whopping five of the eight episodes are written or co-written by series creator, John Carney, who also directs four of those episodes. The series is also set entirely in New York – again, that's no surprise considering its source – so much of it, quite inevitably, have the spectre of Woody Allen looming over them. Most of the episodes also have the habit of being more charming than deep, while mostly feature solidly middle-class protagonists with reasonably similar world views.
This does, actually, give the show a surprising consistency that is hardly common in most anthology shows. Even if a couple of the episodes left me weirdly cold, only one was an outright misfire. On the flip side, even if only a handful of them really made a lasting impression on me, I very much enjoyed watching almost all of them. They're all very well acted by an impressive cast, solidly written and nicely directed.
In a surprise inversion of the old Star Trek movies rule where only the even ones are good, the best episodes of Modern Love are, for my money, the odd-numbered ones. They're also mostly written and directed by John Carney but, then, that was pretty much inevitable both mathematically and by just how much Carney's films have resonated with me down the years. Admittedly, none of these episodes are as good as Once, Begin Again and Sing Street but that's a very high bar to reach for most things, let alone these very snappy vignettes. They also, to be sure, don't have the musical advantages of Carney's films.
Anyway, these four episodes are the easy highlights for me, and they're probably the most idiosyncratic of the lot. Take the excellent first episode, which centres around the relationship between a young woman (played with typical warmth and vulnerability by Cristin Milioti – who also played the female lead in the stage adaptation of Once, incidentally) and the doorman of her apartment building. It's a rather unlikely subject matter for a love story, but as we watch the doorman stand as a constant parental figure against a procession of less than stellar boyfriends, their relationship quickly becomes one of the series' best.
Certainly, it handles its parental-substitute storyline far better than the sixth episode where writer Audrey Wells and director Emmy Rossum (the very same) try their best to tell a story of another lonely young woman and her relationship with an older man that cuts way too close to its "Elektra complex" to be anything but grossly uncomfortable. Episode six is, as you may have guessed, the easy low point of the season, despite plenty of talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Parental love also comes into play in episode seven, where a gay couple (Brandon Kyle Goodman and Fleabag's Andrew Scott) form a relationship with the pregnant homeless girl (Olivia Cooke) who is to be the mother of the baby they hope to adopt. This one is another real highlight, though, with Scott and Cooke providing particularly heartfelt performances. John Carney again writes and directs.
Episode five is perhaps the most purely romantic episode of the season (though episode 8 might just beat it), but it is also the simplest. While on their second date, a neurotic geek (John Gallagher Jr) and a beautiful, French girl that he is absolutely convinced will come to her sense any second now (Sofia Boutella) suddenly find themselves spending a day together at the hospital after he severely injures himself in a clumsy attempt to impress her. Written and directed by Tom Hall, there's something of Before Sunrise about all this and its a breezy, funny segment as we get to watch these two likeable but quite different people get to know each other over the course of an eventful day.
Rounding off the best of the series is perhaps the most surprising and deepest episode of them all, episode three. The episode starts off with Anne Hathaway in an unspeakably annoying form (and I normally don't react this way to this weirdly contentious actress) as about the peppiest woman on the planet, and by the time the surely completely misplaced musical number is finished, you would be forgiven for thinking you've just suffered through the most obnoxious ten minutes of television ever recorded. And then the episode switches and, without getting into any spoilers, the episode (again by Carney) suddenly becomes a moving and empathetic exploration of dating with and through a mental illness. And Hathaway, as it turns out, is pretty damn great in it.
Of the rest, once you get past that awful sixth episode, there's not really too much to complain about but these episodes just don't quite work for me. Well, sort of. Episode eight, which is co-written by Carney and Tom Hall with Hall directing, is actually pretty great for its first half as we have a very moving portrayal of mature love, as Margot (Jane Alexander) recounts the tale of how she met Kenji (James Saito) during a fun run and how the two heartbroken widows/ widowers find love again. Unfortunately, the actual story only lasts about half the episode with the rest being devoted to sweet but mostly perfunctory callbacks to the other episodes.
Episodes two and four, meanwhile, should be two of the best episodes of the season but they both fall short of the mark. The former (written and directed, once again, by you know who) is a story about a seasoned journalist (Catherine Keener) interviewing a tech geek (Dev Patel) about the dating app but when the interview turns to her asking him if he has ever been in love, the two bond over loves lost and whether it can ever be found again. It's nice enough, and the two leads are obviously excellent, but the whole thing is just a touch too hokey to ever really convince.
Finally, there is acclaimed Irish writer/ director/ actress, Sharon Horgan's tale about a middle-aged married couple on the brink of divorce who reignite their relationship over after playing a series of tennis matches together. John Slattery and Tina Fey are, unsurprisingly, wonderful as the bickering couple but the thirty-minute runtime proves to be far too short to do the ups and downs of their relationship any sort of justice. Again, it's far from bad, but it's just too superficial and pat to amount to a wholly satisfying experience.
All in all, Modern Love may be too light and too inconsequential to be must-see TV, but as short blasts of big-hearted confectioneries for romantics of all sorts, it's a welcome treat.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: