Based on the popular New York Times weekly column of the same name, “Modern Love” was released Oct. 18 on Amazon Prime Video, boasting the faces of Tina Fey, Anne Hathaway and Dev Patel.
The column Modern Love began in 2004 and continues to feature personal sagas of love, empathy and intimacy in all forms. Eventually, it was adapted into a critically acclaimed podcast, which invited actors and actresses to read some of the column’s most popular essays. Now, the column has transformed again into an anthology series produced by Amazon Studios.
All eight episodes of the first season are based on actual stories that have been featured in the column, albeit with slight creative liberties. But despite the show’s attempts to chronicle different embodiments of love — self love, platonic love, old and young love — “Modern Love” fails to say anything meaningful on why this “love” is important, or exactly what love is. Instead, the show commodifies the amorphous concept of love into the cheap sparks of theatrical meet cutes.
Episode three, titled “Take Me as I am, Whoever I am,” serves as one of the most guilty examples of the show’s vapidness. Actress Anne Hathaway plays Lexi, an entertainment lawyer who struggles with bipolar disorder. As the episode follows her theatrical highs and vulnerable lows, “Modern Love” appears to set the stage for a conversation on mental illness and self-love. But the show stilts itself by packing weighty, complex topics into thirty minutes — all while posing itself as a “feel-good” show meant to make audiences laugh, cry and maybe, believe in love. The result is a tacky fantasy that skips over the nuances of bipolar disorder, instead portraying it as something that simply impedes Lexi from properly seeing her hot date.
The season concludes in the eighth episode with a montage that reveals that all of the characters exist in the same overarching narrative. They are shown to have mostly resolved their issues, seemingly through couples therapy, finding new boyfriends or settling into beautiful Manhattan apartments. They all live parallel lives, connected by this one elusive, yet all-powerful thing called love. It is a mawkish, forced point that positions itself as truth and insight, obviously playing into the show’s tagline, “Love will find its truth.”
The shallowness of “Modern Love” is particularly surprising because the original column is praised for its nuance and depth of understanding people’s diverse experiences of love. But perhaps this is because the series steps into a sort of uncanny valley, with celebrity actors and sentimental soundtracks, where the show’s narratives become shams of original experiences.
The show’s failures do not mean that all romantic comedies are guilty of commodifying love. In the last ten years, a number of rom-com’s, like “Punch-Drunk Love,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, stand out as narratives that uncover avenues of love’s pleasures,confusion and overall humanity. “Modern Love,” on the other hand, quarantines itself into a hyper-safe familiarity, taking no risks and offering no new vision of exactly what love is. Instead, the show’s depiction of this powerful emotion consists of A-list celebrities performing a one-dimensional, circuitous love.