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Not so modern after all, Amazon’s ‘Modern Love’ disappoints

The transition from New York Times column to series is forced and disingenuous

<p>Cristin Milioti, pictured here in 2014, plays Maggie in Amazon's "Modern Love."</p>

Cristin Milioti, pictured here in 2014, plays Maggie in Amazon's "Modern Love."

“Modern Love,” Amazon Prime Video’s anthology series, premiered Friday. Written and directed by John Carney, the eight-episode series features Dev Patel, University alumna Tina Fey, Anne Hathaway and Ed Sheeran. The series is based on the popular weekly New York Times column of the same name, which is now in its 15th year and even has its own podcast. 

According to the Times, the “Modern Love” column brings “personal essays about love, loss and redemption to readers of The New York Times.” The column and series exist in what might be called the feel-good genre, featuring stories that feel vulnerable and sometimes intimate to the point of being embarrassing. The sustained popularity of the column reflects a desire for these sort of optimistic stories. Perhaps more than ever before, when the news is flooded with stories of hopelessness and destruction, stories about regular people engaged in the universal, simultaneously private and personal act of love are needed. However, the show adaptation does not achieve this the way the column has. 

The first episode opens with Maggie, played by “How I Met Your Mother” and “Black Mirror” actress Cristin Milioti, struggling to explain to her date that if he wants a kiss goodbye, they must do so before they reach her apartment. Maggie’s stress manifests in the character of her father-figure doorman, played by Laurentiu Possa, who keeps careful watch over her social engagements and does not hesitate to assert his opinions. What seems to be a story focused on a young woman in New York finding romantic love quickly reveals itself to be more about Maggie’s platonic love with her doorman Guzmin. 

Maggie has recently moved to New York, reads a book a day in various coffee shops and obsessively checks her phone for a response from her latest person of interest. Guzmin is her annoying constant companion, witnessing both her initial excitement after an inspiring first date and underplayed disappointment after a breakup. He correctly asserts each suitor will be wrong for Maggie, and she begrudgingly realizes that he always seems to be right. Despite the relatable storyline, Milioti and Possa’s acting falls flat. Their compassionate and vulnerable words fail to feel genuine, partially because of the nature of the anthology series and the difficulty to develop characters in such a short period of time. 

Their push and pull relationship reaches a climax when Maggie finds out she’s pregnant and does not know who to call. Guzmin assures Maggie that she can raise the baby alone, and is there throughout the pregnancy when the father of the baby isn’t. In an overly-sentimental role reversal, Maggie holds the door open for Guzmin as he brings her new baby into the apartment for the first time. The story is somewhat unoriginal on its own, and is not aided by the writing or acting, which consistently feels mushy and over-simplistic. For a series with the word “modern” in its title, the first episode feels remarkably traditional. 

“Modern Love” is another addition to the recent rise of anthology series, including big name shows like “Black Mirror” and “American Horror Story.” Anthologies present new stories, new actors and often new writers and directors with each episode. The genre, while requiring a new concept for each episode, is largely low stakes. The story line must simply fill one segment of television, whether it be a single 20 minute episode or an hour slot, and then it’s over. There is no need for Walter White-esque character development over the course of five seasons and 62 episodes. But without this character development, an episode must pack a punch in order to be compelling. In the same vein, the most memorable short stories often include cliff-hangers or jaw-dropping surprises, which “Modern Love” fails to do. 

The rise in the popularity of anthology series perhaps reflects the reduction in viewer attention span. Digital technology has increasingly overwhelmed consumers with content, and we are encouraged to multitask, or just keep scrolling, without narrowing in on any given topic. With so much content to choose from, and so little ability to commit, anthology series allow viewers to pick a single episode. The anthology series simultaneously allows the actor and director to avoid full commitment to any single project, which may be why series such as “Modern Love” are able to get actors such an Anne Hathaway and Dev Patel because the actors only have to commit to filming a single episode. 

The “Modern Love” column is notable for real stories told by real, regular people. The charm of its stories comes from the way in which they’re told by the people who actually experienced them. “Modern Love” attempts to tap into the desire for feel-good love stories, but since several of the plotlines are fictional and told only through Hollywood actors, the authenticity is lost.