The New York Times’ weekly short story series, Modern Love, is noteworthy for its nuance and contemporary understanding of intimacy. Amazon Prime’s adaptation is something more sinister: an overtly sentimental show in which under-utilized A-list actors (Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Dev Patel) interpret eight stories published throughout the column’s 15-year run. The result is a schmaltzy collection of episodes that, regardless of the big names behind them, still work better on the written page.
The medium itself is to blame—essays in Modern Love are afforded time and space to establish its protagonists, their conflicts, and a conclusion that satiates the reader—not only because fans of love stories typically crave some moral lesson or happy ending, but because the series is known for it. Taking those sweet tales of love and translating them on screen only ends up flattening them, as if the whole world of these characters can fit neatly into 30-minute episodes. Modern Love, the television show, dedicates each episode to one person, like a visual anthology, which isn’t enough time to consume the story.
What’s impactful online or in print fails to translate on screen because none of these characters are sketched out. Modern Love is a column that relies on readers’ emotional attachment to its authors and their predicaments; the show denies them that attachment. Episode 4, “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” drags despite having the comedic (and hot) star power of Tina Fey (Sarah) and John Slattery (Dennis), who play a married couple on the outs.
The best of the eight episodes deal less directly with romantic love, offering a looser interpretation of “modern love” that challenges traditional structures. “Hers Was a World of One,” the only story about a queer relationship, follows Andrew Scott (the Hot Priest from Fleabag, who plays Tobin) and his partner, Brandon Kyle Goodman (Andy), a young couple looking to become parents. After weeks of disappointing meetups, their adoption agency puts them in touch with Karla (played by Olivia Cooke), a pregnant, homeless woman looking to find a safe environment for her child to grow up in. The main conflict exists between Tobin and Karla—he thinks her choice to live on the road is untenable and immature; she thinks he’s a dirty capitalist who contradicts the very progressive ideas he espouses. For the sake of their child, Tobin and Karla are forced to find common ground. Once a lightheaded Andy leaves the delivery room so that Tobin is the only one squeezing Karla’s hand, their unbreakable bond becomes clear. Unlike other episodes, this one ends less neatly—they appreciate each other, but their story doesn’t feel like it’s over. Now that there is a daughter attaching them to one another, it’s clear that their love story progresses onward.
Then there’s “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am,” starring Anne Hathaway (Lexi) as a woman with bipolar disorder who struggles to make connections. The episode ends with Lexi revealing her condition to a former coworker, her first time sharing her secret. Her stages of mania are shot like a musical in which she’s the star, and her depressive modes are dark, haunting, slow-moving. Those extremes do work well on television, but it is an exception, not the rule. You’d do just as well to read the Terri Cheney essay on which it’s based.
Surely, there is enough material for Modern Love to continue on for additional seasons, pulling from the New York Times’ extensive archives. There’s also space for producers to give these stories room to breathe and get messy, to introduce the frustrations and uncertainty that exists in the essays and life itself but seem to have been chopped in the cutting room to save time. Modern Love, the short story series, is successful not because it operates with the same tools of a rom-com—but because these are real romances told by real people. The show could use some of the essays’ ugliness to highlight their inherent beauty.