Directors: Andrew Rannells, Celine Held, Logan George, John Carney
Writers: Sarah Heyward, Andrew Rannells, Celine Held, Logan George, Sarra-Jane Piat-Kelly, Dime Davis, Marta Cunningham, Susan Soon He Stanton, John Carney
Cast: Minnie Driver, Tom Burke, Zoe Chao, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Lucy Boynton, Kit Harington, Dominique Fishback, Isaac Powell, Grace Edwards, Lulu Wilson, Garrett Hedlund, Anna Paquin, Marquis Rodriguez, Zane Pais, Tobias Menzies, Sophie Okeonedo
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
How is Modern Love, a series based on real-life love stories published in The New York Times, this storybook and fantastical? The meet cutes are so charming they feel scripted by writers fresh off a heady binge of romcoms, the banter flows without any awkward pauses and there’s always a happy ending, catharsis and contentment at the end of every episode. In this (seemingly alternate) universe, characters rely on fate to help them find one another again instead of just, you know, exchanging numbers.
While the schmaltz is cozy and inviting at first, the issue with compressing an emotion as complex as love into eight tight instalments is that it begins to feel a bit one-dimensional, its uglier edges just beyond the focus of the show’s rose-tinted glasses. Modern love, as many can attest to, is often frustrating, messy and painful. In the show, however, even a life-threatening illness or a global pandemic serve only as devices to bring two people closer together, with the writers having little interest in exploring their nuances.
Season 2 runs full tilt towards the rabbit hole leading to Wonderland with its second episode, The Night Girl Finds a Day Boy. Zoe (Zoe Chao), an editor with a disorder that causes her to stay awake all night, meets Jordan (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a teacher with a more conventional sleep cycle. Cue immediate chemistry and cute dates with two characters so instantly open and communicative, they feel more aspirational than relatable. Even the nature of Zoe’s affliction feels engineered to make the couple inhabit a romantic nighttime setting that frames them like they’re the only ones in the world. Soon, however, reality creeps in. The solitude of a world asleep morphs into a stifling loneliness. The shiny appeal of novelty is replaced by a resentful longing for familiarity. The couple parts, but when they reunite, it’s telling that they’re still using the escapist language of a fairytale to describe their new, shared reality.
Acknowledging how absurdly over-the-top romantic the show feels, only Two Strangers On A (Dublin) Train is smart enough to lean into it with a cheeky self-awareness. When medievalist Paula (Lucy Boynton) and tech bro Michael (Kit Harington) have a meet cute on a train, a romantic song begins to play, unsurprising given director John Carney’s penchant for using music as a means of connection. Unlike in the other episodes, however, this isn’t yet another cheesy needle drop, but a cheery co-passenger serenading them as though assessing the situation and deciding to behave exactly as a side character in a romcom would. There are references to lockdowns and travel restrictions, just enough to make the short feel rooted in reality, but no outright mentions of the word ‘Covid’ lest the thought of a deadly virus put a dampener on the mood. Thankfully, the episode has enough snark to cut through the sweetness and enough genuinely funny one-liners to forgive the sentimentality.
Not all episodes can make the gloss work. Take In the Waiting Room of Estranged Spouses, in which even PTSD gets the cutesy treatment in service of romance. War veteran Spence (Garrett Hedlund) daydreams of a mission that could only exist in the saccharine-soaked world of this show. He deploys a team to kidnap his wife’s friend so she doesn’t have to go to the store with him. She replies with gushing gratitude. That Spence indulges in this flight of fancy a few minutes after a rude reality check — he’s asked point-blank whether he’s ever killed another man in combat — is an abrupt tonal shift. A while later, his wife asks for a divorce and he envisions them as videogame characters duking it out, as opposed to two adults talking things through. Like Spence, is Modern Love so uncomfortable with the more sobering realities of life and love that it hides them inside frivolous fantasy instead?
If not for the knowledge that each episode is based on a real story, the trite Am I Gay or Straight? Maybe This Fun Quiz Game Will Tell Me would come across as a take on millennial love through the myopic lens of an older-generation writer. High-school students drop buzzwords like ‘gender-inclusive casting’, take Buzzfeed quizzes in the hopes of validating their sexuality and bond over Harry Potter (a Patronus reference feels all too dated in 2021). Even the beats of teenage angst and tumult feel predictable.
Maybe young love is best viewed with the maturity of hindsight, if the vastly better episode, A Life Plan For Two, Followed By One, is any indication. The short traces the yearning of first love, the exuberation of realising it might just work out and the heartbreak when it doesn’t. Thriving on stolen glances and unspoken admissions, it’s at its best when it’s letting the imagery of love speak for itself, instead of an analytical voiceover. The theme of happy reunions continues in A Second Embrace, With Hearts And Eyes Open, which sees a former couple slip right back into familiar intimacy with zero insight into the strife that drove them apart in the first place.
Two standout episodes avoid the lure of easy sentimentality, despite being steeped in the remembrance of a former lover. On A Serpentine Road, With the Top Down achieves this by making its central love story not between two people, but between a person and the inanimate object she has a tremendous affection for. Dr. Curran (Minnie Driver) knows her vintage car has seen better days but selling it would mean letting go of the memories of her late husband, who it belonged to. This is the only episode to convincingly explore the heartache that accompanies love, sitting with Curran’s acute sense of loss instead of quickly brushing past it in favour of lighter emotions.
The other standout, How Do You Remember Me?, follows two exes (Marquis Rodriguez, Zane Pais) about to cross paths. In the time it takes them to walk towards each other, both revisit a supercut of their short-lived relationship in their minds. Much like the boxed-in spaces their dalliance played out in — a restaurant, a cab, a bedroom — it’s been confined to the recesses of their memories, until now. Minor details vary depending on whose perspective you’re reliving, but the bittersweet short leaves you with the overall impression that ‘How do you remember me?’ is just another way to say, ‘I’m glad I get to remember you.’