‘Modern Love’ Review: Star-Studded Anthology Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeve

In the second episode of Modern Love, Amazon’s anthology series based on the famous New York Times column, a journalist played by Catherine Keener tells us, “Sometimes, you realize that true love, in its absolute form, has many purposes in life. It’s not actually just about bringing babies into the world, or romance, or soul mates, or even lifelong companionship.”

Keener’s character is part of a story (along with Dev Patel as the founder of a dating app) that is entirely about romance and lifelong companionship — specifically, the danger of missing out on a potential lifelong companion because of a mistake one of you once made. But like the Times column, the series — developed by Once‘s John Carney — is interested in many different forms of love: parental love, platonic love, love gone sour, the need to love oneself in the face of overwhelming reason not to, and more.

Patel and Keener. Photo: Giovanni Rufino

Only one episode (the Before Sunrise-ish fifth installment, “At the Hospital, An Interlude of Clarity”) is primarily about a couple (John Gallagher Jr. and Sofia Boutella) at the start of a relationship. And even that one — where an injury forces the duo to spend most of their second date in a hospital room — is less about whether they have a future together than in showing how the intense experience strips away the usual defense mechanisms they would otherwise have at this stage of things. Anne Hathaway goes on a couple of dates with The Deuce‘s Gary Carr in “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am,” but that one’s really about her coming to grips with her bipolar disorder and the importance of telling others about it. Several involve pregnancy, including “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man,” with Cristin Milioti, and “Hers Was a World of One,” featuring everyone’s favorite hot priest, Andrew Scott. One, the Sharon Horgan-penned “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive” involves a middle-aged couple (Tina Fey and John Slattery) trying to avoid divorce, while the finale (“The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap”) is about senior citizens (Jane Alexander and James Saito) who marry after their original spouses have passed away.

It’s an eclectic group of scenarios and relationships, though there’s overlap. Both the doorman episode and the sixth one — “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?,” with Julia Garner and Shea Whigham — involve younger women who look to older men for the kind of support and wisdom that guys their own age don’t appear able to give(*). For that matter, the whole show is very on-brand for the Times, full of real estate porn and twee jazz music. (As has been the case with most of Carney’s films, there are also original songs.) The characters are culturally diverse, but almost all of them are well-to-do; even the woman (Olivia Cooke) who is letting Scott and his husband adopt her baby is homeless as a philosophical choice rather than an economic necessity. (She’s also pals with Ed Sheeran, though he’s playing a fellow hobo rather than himself.)

(*) There are amusing casting echoes, as well: Garner, who just won an Emmy for Ozark, first caught TV attention on The Americans as a teenage girl being seduced by a spy around Whigham’s age, while Milioti’s impending single parenthood feels like a retort to how the final season of How I Met Your Mother used and discarded her.

But if the stories can fall prey to “Wealthy Upper West Siders: They’re Just Like Us!” self-flattery, most of them are also sincere, thoughtful, and generous of spirit in a way that typifies Carney’s work (see also Sing Street and Begin Again). Not every installment works(*) — the Horgan/Slattery/Fey one is disappointingly one-note (and one of several that would have done well to ditch the original Times headline as its title) — but enough of them hit that narrow but satisfying target of being sweet but not overly saccharine.

(*) With a traditional anthology show like this debuting in the middle of Peak TV, there’s the inevitable question of which ones you should watch or skip. Your mileage will obviously vary depending on both your taste and life experience: amusingly, a friend of mine only liked the Fey/Slattery episode, while despising the Hathaway one, which was one of my favorites. So you may want to sample based on the actors and/or the subject. But a word of warning: While most of the episodes are completely disconnected, “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap” eventually touches on all the others.

Brandon Kyle Goodman and Scott. Photo: Christopher Saunders/Amazon Studios

It helps that the actors are so good. Hathaway, for instance, is largely left to solo in her episode, which illustrates her manic state with La La Land-esque musical numbers and her depressive state as an oppressively gray world in which simply getting out of bed requires superhuman effort. Her choices are not small, but they’re the right ones for the context. The story isn’t trying to show us how other people like Carr see her, but to illustrate how each state feels to her when she’s trapped inside it. The dad crush Garner develops on Whigham is awkward in ways that go even deeper than the episode seems prepared to acknowledge, yet the performers find a way to play it so that both of their feelings seem at least understandable. Alexander and Saito are a treat as lovers who never expected to find another partner at their age. And in the hospital story, Sofia Boutella finds humanity in a very underwritten role, which also hands her the worst line of the series (and one of the worst lines of the year in TV), when she tells Gallagher of their experience, “I’ve been live-blogging it on social media.” (I look forward to the deleted scene where she explains to the series’ older characters how streaming and binge-viewing work.)

A year ago, Amazon debuted another anthology series with an all-star cast and an acclaimed director. But Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs was very difficult to love, for a variety of reasons. Modern Love is, like many relationships, imperfect, but its heart is in the right place, and that goes a long way.

All eight episodes of Modern Love premiere October 18th on Amazon.

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