‘Modern Love’, a new series from Amazon, takes its name, theme and most of its main characters and storylines, such as they are, from a weekly column in the Style section of the New York Times.
In it, guest writers tell a personal tale of love in all its shapes, sizes, colours, flavours and ages. (It is also a podcast for which well known actors read the columns.) The series is just about what you might expect from the Style section of the New York Times coming to life: a little patrician, kind of pleased with itself, but well made and certainly good-looking.
It’s an anthology, a respectable sounding word, and the episodes play like short stories, though even at 30 minutes each, much elaboration is necessary building out characters, adding dialogue and drama and comedy. Broadly speaking, they are peopled by creative types, like the mostly professional writers whose columns these are. They’re well-to-do, or well-enough-to-do. When I say that it is not only a letter to love but a location-shot love letter to New York, you are correct in interpreting this to mean it is like a Woody Allen movie.
The series was developed by John Carney, who directed ‘Once’ and wrote and directed ‘Sing Street’ and knows a thing or two about putting a lump in the throat of the slightly arty mass market. Its cast is starry yet interesting: Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, John Slattery, Dev Patel, Catherine Keener, Andrew Scott and Jane Alexander. It’s a pro job, though at times it feels professional in a Madison Avenue kind of way, as if you are being sold something, rather than told a story. Most feel minor, even when the subject is major, perhaps because they’re so faithful to spirit of the essays. I don’t mean that as a criticism. And I did choke up a few times.
A range of stories is clearly what Carney had in mind. And yet in two episodes (maybe three), a main character conceals a mental health condition. In two episodes, characters stay up until dawn and learn something important. Two episodes — three, at a tiny stretch — involve surrogate fathers. Two include trips to the zoo.
Nothing says you have to watch them all. But you might spare half an hour to watch Fey and Slattery bat lines at each other in a passive-aggressive double act, no? Or maybe Anne Hathaway dancing in a supermarket parking lot is more your thing. To help you decide, I bring you this semi-informative, quasi-scientific, intermittently analogous field guide to the rare birds and odd ducks of ‘Modern Love.’
“When the Doorman Is Your Main Man.”
Cristin Milioti is a freelance book reviewer somehow able to afford a nest in a building with a white-glove doorman (Laurentiu Possa) who is protective but not territorial, able to smell a bad boyfriend at 60 paces. (The apartment was passed down in the family, so the rent is low, we are pointedly told.) Well, I thought it was rather sweet, in spite of Los Angeles being characterised as “phoney.”
“When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist.”
Catherine Keener plays a reporter, based on essayist Deborah Copaken (war photographer, TV producer, novelist, you don’t want to know), interviewing tech success Dev Patel for the New York Times Sunday magazine — you can bet your meta. The talk turns to lost love. Each has a story. Courtship ritual: “She told me about her plans to set up a file-sharing app, I told her about my ideas to set up a dating site.” Zoo: Bronx.
“Rallying to Keep the Game Alive.”
The one with Fey and Slattery. Written and directed by Sharon Horgan (‘Catastrophe’) from a column by novelist Ann Leary, the wife of Denis Leary — which accounts for Slattery’s character being an actor named Denis, though he’s more Roger Sterling than Leary here. The stars play a married couple who may be coming to the end of their relationship, or maybe not. Habitat: Central Park West. Main metaphors: penguins, tennis. Who’s that cameo? It’s Ted Allen from ‘Chopped.’
“Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am.”
Terri Cheney (high-powered showbiz lawyer turned mental health advocate, author of ‘Manic: A Memoir’ and ‘The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar’) wrote the essay on which this episode is based. Anne Hathaway convincingly changes her feathers from sparkly to darkly as the mood strikes her (without warning), confusing a suitor, among others. Habitat: Fairway Market’s Red Hook, Brooklyn, branch, in whose parking lot an imaginary production number takes place. Who’s that cameo? Judd Hirsch!
“At the Hospital, an Interlude of Clarity.”
The woman (Sofia Boutella) wears the plumage while the man (John Gallagher Jr) is drably arrayed in this story of a date that goes good by going bad. Previously mentioned categories this fits: mental health; all-night hang, like ‘Before Sunrise,’ but with surgery and prescription drugs. Range of habitats: $2,200/month apartment; hospital; pretty little park.
“So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?”
Fatherless Julia Garner imprints fatherhood upon handsome boss Shea Whigham, who gets the wrong idea. (Inter-species communication is difficult.) Audrey Wells’ script (directed by actress Emmy Rossum) goes further than Abby Sher’s one-dinner essay. A romcom in which the rom is wrong (it’s not even rom). Kind of creepy but a little poignant too. Zoo: Prospect Park, by the seals.
“Hers Was a World of One.”
Adapted from Dan Savage’s much darker ‘DJ’s Homeless Mommy,’ set alight to warm the cockles of the heart and make s’mores over. Andrew Scott and Brandon Kyle Goodman play a gay couple looking to adopt; Olivia Cooke is the pregnant, homeless-as-lifestyle girl — a hobo, I guess — who moves in and turns their lives upside down. Gratuitous French film reference (mine): Jean Renoir’s ‘Boudu Saved From Drowning’ (1932). Who’s that cameo? It’s Ed Sheeran, not as himself.
“The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap”
Author/runner/cousin of the person for whom the Pell Grant is named Eve Pell wrote the source essay, a story of late-life love. Main melody: The voice of Jane Alexander, almost 80. (James Salto, 16 years Alexander’s junior, plays her significant other.) Not much in the way of plot, and you should expect the expected, but sightings of Alexander are rare enough to be savoured. Secondary melody: Bobby Short’s ‘I Happen to Like New York’ (the Cafe Carlyle version) to wrap up. If you catch just those few minutes, you’ll have seen some great television.
Don’t miss it!
‘Modern Love’ is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.