It’s something of truism that there are no new ideas. Mark Twain said as much in his autobiography, more than a hundred years ago. So it’s no shame for creators – artists, musicians, and writers – to dip liberally into existing material for inspiration. The best stories have already been told and all they can do is find new and entertaining ways to retell them.
All of the stories in “Modern Love,” an eight-part anthology streaming on Amazon Prime, were inspired by essays penned for the New York Times column of the same name – a column that has, in its 15-year life, already spawned over 750 articles, a wildly popular podcast and a book.
Described by the Times as “personal essays about love, loss and redemption,” the Modern Love column is a showcase for quality writing on matters of universal human interest. The eponymous podcast drafted in actors such as Jake Gyllenhaal, Kate Winslet and Sandra Oh to read the essays and is permanently near the top of every list of most downloaded podcasts.
With this kind of pedigree and with such a deep reservoir of source material – not to mention cash – Amazon executives must have known they were on to a winner with “Modern Love.” All they needed to do was pick eight adaptable stories, find the right team and cast some headline-grabbing names.
Indeed, among the plethora of stars drafted in for the show were Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Dev Patel, John Slattery, Catherine Keener, Julia Garner and Andy García. Success guaranteed, one would think. Not even a cameo appearance from Ed Sheeran could ruin this, surely?
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The answer – predictably and frustratingly – is yes and no. “Modern Love” is, at its strongest, an eloquent examination of love; at its weakest, it is flat, meandering and all rather pointless.
Of the eight episodes in what will surely not be the only season of “Modern Love,” three stand out. The first episode, “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man,” stars Cristin Milioti and Laurence Possa as the resident of an upscale New York apartment building (affluence alert: all eight episodes are centered on characters who appear to be blissfully free of the mundanity of fiscal concerns) and her doorman.
Since I had heard this story in both its previous incarnations – the original essay by Julie Margaret Hogben and the subsequent podcast – I was naturally concerned that there was no juice left to squeeze out of this particular fruit. However, Milioti’s emotionally raw performance and Possa’s stoic depiction of the doorman, coupled with sensitive, non-intrusive directing from John Carney, ensure that, even in this second retelling, the story works.
Carney, the Irish director who gave us the feel-good, foot-tapping musical comedy “Sing Street,” brings his joie de vivre to four of the eight episodes. He also directed Dev Patel and Catherine Keener in “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist,” a tale of missed love, second chances and wistful regret.
But Carney’s – and the show’s – highlight is Episode 3, “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am,” starring Hathaway as Lexi, a bipolar lawyer struggling to cope with her disorder, and the social and professional ramifications.
In this episode, Carney mines his love of musical cinema to the full: there’s a song-and-dance routine in a supermarket, there’s countless references to Rita Hayworth and there are heart-warming moments of intimacy between friends – all of which are hallmarks of Carney’s work.
Based on the essay by Terri Cheney, this episode is not so much about love, but more about finding and keeping love – romantic or platonic – while dealing with bipolar disorder. Hathaway’s performance is nuanced and suitably manic; she captures the highs and lows of the disorder with uncanny accuracy.
Another episode – “At the Hospital, an Interlude of Clarity,” starring Sofia Boutella and John Gallagher Jr. – also touches on issues of mental health, but is too slight to be anything more than an entertaining novella of an episode.
Another stand-out episode, as it happens, was not written or directed by Carney. Instead, “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive” was written by another Irish talent – Sharon Hogan. Starring Tina Fey and John Slattery, Hogan adapted the original essay by Ann Leary into a perceptive, biting and wryly funny vignette. While the competitive style is somewhat reminiscent of Woody Allen at his most neurotic, Hogan’s voice is much clearer, more balanced and honest.
Before Fey and Slattery find marital therapy on the tennis court, their characters engage in the kind of sharp dialog that fans of Hogan came to expect after her wonderful writing (alongside Rob Delaney) on “Catastrophe.” The exchange about whether cooking can be a hobby is the funniest in “Modern Love,” fully justifying the decision to bring Hogan on board. It’s almost a pity that she wasn’t let loose on some of the other episodes, which lacked her acerbic tongue.
Inevitably, as is the case with so many anthologies, “Modern Love” has weak links. The final episode, “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap,” starring Jane Alexander, is a missed opportunity. “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” was quirky enough, but lacked any momentum, while “Hers Was a World of One” took a turn for the absurd the moment Ed Sheeran popped up. (Can I suggest “the Sheeran cameo point” as the new “jump the shark”?)
Unusually for an anthology, the last few moments of the final installment indulged in some superfluous episode-hopping epilogues. There was no need to bring together – however fleetingly and tangentially – characters from previous episodes. By doing so, “Modern Love” signed off on a note of mawkishness that was, for the most part, absent elsewhere.
With hundreds more original essays still to be mined, it seems certain that there will be another batch of “Modern Love” episodes. Whether this this was your first date with the oeuvre, or you’re already a fan of the columns/podcasts, there’s much to enjoy in this intelligent, eloquent and moving collection.