What is love? That's a tricky question—just look at the millions of songs and movies lamenting it. It’s one many people spend their entire lives seeking to answer. Some say it’s an unexplainable, hit–by–a–truck feeling, while others try to spell it out more scientifically, with numbers and chemicals. Modern Love, Amazon Prime’s new eight–episode anthology series, puts it much more simply: love is whatever it is to you.
Modern Love is based on the New York Times weekly column of the same name that, after 15 years of print, has amassed a vast collection of acutely personal love stories. Some follow the classic “boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy marries girl” trope while others beg readers to consider less stereotypical relationships. The column's subjects vary in age, gender, and sexual orientation, while the stories range from remorseful and somber to joyous and impassioned.
Each of the eight episodes in Modern Love is based on an essay from the NYT column. In 30 minutes or fewer, each episode takes us from the very first introduction of our protagonist to the conclusion of their respective love story. This is no easy task, given the complexities of love itself and each unique story, but writers John Carney, Tom Hall, Sharon Hogart, and Aubrey Wells do it masterfully, due in no small part to the show's star–studded cast, featuring Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey and Dev Patel.
The series is at its best in the first three episodes. The cohesiveness and success of these introductory episodes is due largely to the influence of Carney, who serves as the director and writer for all three episodes as well as the finale. They strike the perfect balance between intimate moments, poignant lines, and a few over–the–top bits.
The first episode, “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man,” brings us a sweet relationship between a single woman Maggie (Cristin Milioti) and her doorman Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa). At the outset, Guzmin seems cold. His rejections of Maggie’s suitors makes it feel like they he has an ulterior motive, but over the course of the episode, Guzmin’s true colors shine through as he helps Maggie through a surprise pregnancy. There isn't a moment of “romance” between Maggie and Guzmin, but that only makes their love, as mentor and mentee, even more real. The episode maintains an airy quality through montages of Guzmin helping Maggie, but its final scene is one of the most powerful moments of the series. Guzmin tells Maggie that all of his rejections weren’t because of the men she was seeing themselves, but because he didn’t see the “it” in her eyes—the "it" being true love and happiness. Despite the unconventional style of their relationship, the portrayal is so genuine that the episode is a perfect show opener.
Carney’s works shines again in episode two, “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist.” What starts out as just an interview between young dating app developer Joshua (Patel) and New York Times reporter Julie (Catherine Keener) for an upcoming issue becomes a meaningful conversation on both of their love lives, the parallels between them, and the importance of holding onto true love with everything you’ve got. The storyline is predictable (Joshua and his ex find their way back to each other and they kiss as the camera spins around them) but that's not really the point. Modern Love best showcases its identity in this episode. No, each episode won't always have jaw–dropping declarations of love, but it will be sincere and raw, and you will absolutely feel it in all the right ways. It’s the attention to detail in each and every frame and the particular nature of each line of dialogue that make these first stories feel so personal and real.
With that said, Modern Love has one outlier. Episode three, “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am” is not in line with the rest of the series’ subtlety and reservedness. And yet, it still works. In fact, Hathaway’s portrayal of Lexi, an elite lawyer with bipolar disorder, makes for my personal favorite episode of the series. The opening scene, reminiscent of La La Land’s infamous musical introduction, alongside other moments in which Hathaway just bursts into song, conveys her bipolar disorder in a unique way. Depressive episodes are depicted through both the episode's storyline and various understated hue changes. Lexi doesn’t find love with her date, as a depressive episode drives her into bed and away from a potential relationship. But she finds a different kind of love: a love for herself and for her mental illness. Having told no one about the mental illness, she begins to open up about her experiences to those that she’d inadvertently caused harm to over the years, and she eventually finds the self–love that the episode claims is more important than a romantic relationship. It's both poignant and compelling, and a reminder of what's really important.
Though the series as a whole is not to be missed, episode six, “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” is one that the show could’ve done without. The episode's lead, Julia Garner, is great, but the episode's focus on her character's daddy issues misses a beat. Whether you point to the writing itself (as the way the plot unfolds makes the storyline feel even more preposterous than it does from the onset), or the contrived bits thrown in at the end, there’s very little outside of Garner’s performance that makes episode six worthy of a spot in such a well–curated series.
Episode six aside, Modern Love has the “it” Guzmin describes so sagely in episode one, that “it” being what makes love, love. Each episode is filled to the brim with heartfelt emotions and personal growth, whether they be in a romantic relationship, a friendship, or most importantly, self–love. We may not get the answer to the age–old question of what love is, but Modern Love gives us more than a few heartfelt stories of what it can be.