Love is bathing your 92-year-old grandmother after her stroke with the solemnity of a prayer. Love is knowing what boundaries to build between you and your mother no matter how much she clings to you. Love is a gaze that sets off your nerves like fireworks. Love is hungry and complicated and richly mellifluous and sunsets the color of orange peels.
Love, in other words, is not so easily contained in 30-minute installments of an anthology series, particularly one that favors emotional manipulation over emotional truth.
Modern Love, the Amazon anthology series based on the New York Times column of the same name, at first blush seems to be a diverse depiction of love, be it romantic, platonic, or familial. A young woman finds herself pregnant after an unsatisfying end to a short relationship; another pines for the father she never had and transfers this obsession onto a superior at work. A gay couple adopts a child from a woman who chooses to be homeless. A journalist and her subject bond over lost love. But a deeper look into the series’s rhythms reveals a narrow understanding of love and who experiences its ebb and flow. Even with a glitzy cast that includes the likes of Anne Hathaway, Catherine Keener, Tina Fey, and John Slattery, Modern Love fails to enchant, or even to muster up much genuine feeling. Ultimately, it’s an aesthetically and narratively empty enterprise that confuses treacly, saccharine gestures with a complex understanding of interpersonal relationships.
The major hurdle to connecting with Modern Love is that the characters have the depth of a thimble. The show inadvertently demonstrates the limits of what a good actor can do with bad material, which is not as much as you might hope — especially on a show that insists on holding the audience’s hands with a score full of gentle guitar strumming, an overreliance on montage and voice-over as a shortcut to character development, and grating expository dialogue.
But what really undermines Modern Love is the efforts of showrunner John Carney (previously of Once) to strip the characters’ lives of political dimension. All those tricksy dynamics of class, power, and race, which undoubtedly influence not only who we love but how we love them, are absent from the series. In episode one, after realizing she’s pregnant, Maggie (Cristin Milioti) talks around the word abortion and never fully considers it as an option, as if she were in an early 2000s romantic comedy. Weirder still are the series’s racial dynamics. Women of color are a rarity in this vision of New York, which relegates black women to sidekicks. The show is full of interracial relationships that always have a white partner, yet never considers the dynamics or complications that might arise from such a pairing. In Modern Love, love is vacuum-sealed from the murkier dynamics that shape our lives.
The episode that highlights the various issues of the show most starkly is its third, starring Anne Hathaway as Lexi, a bipolar lawyer with little stability in her life. The episode opens with Lexi in the midst of a manic episode, nearly skipping through a grocery store to get peaches when she catches the eye of Jeff (Gary Carr). They have what the show frames as a dazzling first encounter before Lexi engages in a dance sequence with people in the grocery-store parking lot. This remarkably flat rendition of bipolar disorder sands the edges off the experience; we’re mostly told how it makes Lexi’s life hard, but rarely shown it, since she isn’t seen interacting with many people. Even the way the would-be relationship with Jeff fizzles out is because of Lexi’s inability to be present. We — and Jeff — don’t get a chance to sit with the character and her darker impulses to make a conclusion. It’s a simplistic rendition of a complex disorder that ignores the ways it intersects with race, class, gender, and, yes, desire.
More importantly, we never understand Lexi beyond her illness. She’s tied her identity so fiercely to her diagnosis, and the filmmakers can’t see beyond it either. In severing bipolar disorder specifically, and dating more generally, from the larger, trickier sociopolitical concerns that inform it, the show misses the truth of the experience, and underlines the unfortunate fact that Modern Love is at once empty and retrograde. Its stars, and viewers, deserve better.