November 8, 2019

“You have to start with this one,” he said as he pulled up Julie Margaret Hogben’s essay. “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” was the first piece I ever read on Modern Love, a New York Times column my flat mate introduced me to. “It’s very you,” he said. Most people would describe the column as a series of stories about different types of love. In its most rudimentary form, maybe that’s true.

What is modern love? The New York Times asks us in one of its alluring ads—It’s a column. A book. A podcast. And now, a television show. They talk about it as if it were a medium. It’s more than that, though. It’s a feeling… of optimism, frustration and befuddled bittersweetness. It’s the plethora of iterations of awkward, sad and romantic that people experience in our various interactions. The thing that makes the column so beautiful is its honesty, its sincerity in conveying the turbulences of love in the maze of our modern world. It’s harder to get published on Modern Love than it is to get into Harvard. Finely curated and intimately personal, these essays are about the diversity of love.

In our ever-changing world, love remains one of the most important aspects of our lives. The way we talk about those feelings and experiences is growing and breaking down the barriers of social expectations and categorisation. The stories are written with warmth and in heartache, its young women, non-binary individuals and ageing spouses waxing lyrical about loss, lust, race, sexuality and everything in between.

The best Modern Love stories are like forehead kisses—sweet, pure and tender. There’s intimacy weaved between the words. The feelings resonate. They are questions that we put out into the world hoping that an answer will hit us on the head.  Some of my favourite ones include “You May Want to Marry My Husband”, where a dying woman writes of what a wonderful man her husband is, wishing him a beautiful life after she goes, and “When Chivalry is More Control Than Care”, a cutting look at how feminine and masculine roles within relationships can obfuscate our affections.

The stories that they’ve chosen to bring to life on-screen are a sparse set of different tales, from platonic love to failed love to charming one-off encounters. Though the TV show has an impressive cast, it isn’t quite as consistent as its source.

Some episodes feel like beautifully natural and intimate forehead kisses, where love and all its complications and contradictions leak out of the characters. In episode 4, Tina Fey and John Slattery share an electric ambivalence for each other. There are so many layers to their relationship that are uncovered and peeled away. In a pivotal scene, Tina Fey’s character finally expresses to her husband where her irritation really comes from, and how he has unknowingly engineered the slow melting of their commonality. His face bears a reaction so real and so cutting of how taken aback and saddened he is by the confrontation, suddenly ambushed by the ugly truth of his own behaviour. The honesty of the moment is palpable. With a single look, Tina too conveys all the anger and resentment she’s been holding back. All at once, she is hilarious, serious and real. What was already an intensely personal yet relatable story has been expanded on with an on-screen portrayal that goes deeper and brings out emotions that hadn’t previously been touched upon.

Similarly, episode 7 takes the original story and develops it into a more profound commentary about class and what being liberal really means. In this episode, a gay couple enters into an adoption arrangement with a homeless woman, and the discussion of real generosity is opened up and challenged. Andrew Scott in all his magnificent glory portrays a contradictory, quirky man, who is suddenly entwined with Olivia Cooke’s care-free, anti-capitalist way of life. The comedic aspects are light and airy, while the drama, heavy and meaningful. Their underlying animosity and eventual heated confrontation drive the narrative to bravery, resulting in a screen adaptation that broadens the scope of tensions.

Other episodes, however, come across as forced cheek kisses, demonstratively seeking to be praised. Those are about power—performative and hard to ignore. Much like presenting your hand to be kissed, jutting your cheek out is a sign of regality, often verging on a gratuitous proof of affection. Episodes 2 and 5 feel particularly awkward with the stunted and forced dialogue akin to reading off a teleprompter, and the unconvincing chemistry between characters such as the “prying journalist” and her interviews, and the young couple on their first date. These adaptations try very hard to be profound, to manufacture the right sentiment or strike the right note.

Episode 3, starring Anne Hathaway, is based on a woman’s struggles with bipolar disorder and dating depicted by theatrical highs and crash-and-burn lows. Although the relationship that the essay focuses on is confined to herself, the onscreen story seems to be framed by the protagonist’s colleague reaching out to her as a turning point. They speak like they’re in a therapy session but mistakenly find themselves in a diner. The confrontational scene between the two is uncomfortable, and maybe it’s meant to be, but the sentiment passed between the women feels too artificial and manufactured. In the same way, the last episode, designed to be a love letter to New York, forces a superficial connection to be tediously drawn out of the viewer. The camera revisits each of the love stories at different points in time, which doesn’t add anything other than confusion.

Ultimately, the Amazon Prime TV show can’t be judged as one singular entity. It’s a series of stories that are individual in their own right and should stand as such. When I think of Modern Love, I think of my flatmate—always showing me new ways to look at the world with tempered optimism—but like most affairs of the heart, this screen adaptation has hits and misses.