In theory, a series based on “Modern Love,” the wildly popular “New York Times” column about real life relationships, is a slam dunk. There’s no shortage of material, it already has an audience, and there’s no premise more open-ended than “love.” All a TV version of “Modern Love” had to do was pick compelling stories, connect some narrative dots, and cast a handful of beautiful people to give it a glossier finish than it ever had in print.
Amazon’s adaptation, developed by “Sing Street” writer/director John Carney, is a success on exactly one of these fronts. You’ll hardly find a more charismatic and photogenic cast than this one, which includes actors like Dev Patel, Anne Hathaway, Catherine Keener, Andrew Scott and Tina Fey to tell a different story in every episode. (There are times when watching “Modern Love” feels like watching a bizarro, rom-com version of “The Romanoffs,” Amazon’s high-budget Matthew Weiner series that quickly faded in the rear-view mirror despite its prestige.) It’s tempting to feel a tiny twinge of warmth as they turn their luminous, earnest faces to each other, but then one will speak and the illusion shatters. No matter how valiantly they push through, there’s only so much they can do with what they’ve got, which is a saccharine series of clichés that promises way more insight than it’s ultimately capable of.
The only exception to this rule is the fourth episode (“Rallying to Keep the Game Alive”), an adaptation of Ann Leary’s 2013 column about her relationship with actor Denis. While Fey and John Slattery have decent chemistry together as the unhappy couple, the reason this chapter works is because it was written and directed by Sharon Horgan, whose meditations on the equally hard and rewarding slog of marriage in “Catastrophe” remain some of TV’s best. Horgan, unlike Carney, doesn’t take the source material too literally. She instead fills in the gaps with subtle threads of disdain that eventually reveal a rich tapestry of gnarled resentment, culminating in a pointed monologue (delivered by Fey) about all the ways a partner can make the other feel vanishingly small.
Watching this episode makes the shortcomings of the others even clearer and more frustrating. The premiere (“When The Doorman Is Your Main Man”) refuses to shade out its original story, an especially egregious oversight when it comes to the omnipresent doorman who could, in a TV show, have far more depth than he does in the column. Patel and Keener spark onscreen together despite the paint-by-numbers script bonding them (someone give them a real rom-com, stat!). The sole episode featuring a gay couple (Scott and the very charming Brandon Kyle Goodman), based on an early “Modern Love” column by Dan Savage, comes close to being interesting, but quickly drowns in confusing platitudes about the evils of capitalism, or something. Most other episodes pass by in a bland haze, though at least the one with recent Emmy-winner Julia Garner as a lab assistant with crippling daddy issues is jarring enough to make you raise an, “I’m sorry, what?!” eyebrow. It’s not that it’s hard to want these people to find love. It’s that it’s way too hard to believe that these characters trading stilted dialogue vaguely shaped like banter are actual people.
For all the wasted opportunities of “Modern Love,” its biggest failure belongs to its most ambitious chapter. In “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am,” Hathaway stars as Lexi, a bipolar woman who’s struggled all her life to balance her manic episodes with her depressive ones. Carney’s episode hews remarkably close to the trajectory of Terri Cheney’s original 2008 column to the point where Lexi, in writing herself a candid dating profile, essentially re-writes the column. But as she describes what being manic feels like to her, Lexi imagines herself as the glittering heroine of a musical, complete with background extras becoming backup dancers and sporadic bursts into song. Then, when she crashes, the room goes dark. On paper, these devices make some sense in terms of underlining the whiplash of Lexi’s day to day life. In practice, the script is so literal and Hathaway’s performance so extreme that reeling back from its sledgehammered themes leaves no room to feel for Lexi as a human being. There’s also the fact that this episode’s themes and structure bear unavoidable similarities to “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the CW musical series that was consistently insightful on mental illness even (especially) through frantic jazz hands. It stretches credulity to believe that the “Modern Love” team wasn’t aware of the work “Crazy Ex” did in the exact arena this episode attempts, especially as Lexi takes a moment to star in her own TV show credits. Unfortunately for “Modern Love,” the side-by-side comparison of its approach to that of “Crazy Ex” isn’t a flattering one.
And it’s a shame. Again: The concept of turning “Modern Love” into an anthology series is a good one with a low difficulty setting. With the source material and acting talent at its disposal, this series could have dug a little deeper to find some fresh ways to unravel all the ways that love can make us happy, hurt, and even grow. Instead, it serves up plate after plate of lukewarm leftovers that are somehow never filling.
“Modern Love” premieres Friday, October 18 on Amazon Prime.