Amazon hits all the right notes turning the titular New York Times column about relationships into an anthology series starring Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey and Dev Patel.
Sometimes a simple idea executed well makes for a little gem.
Lots of New York Times readers through the years have been taken with the newspaper’s “Modern Love” column, a collection of overtly personal, mostly touching, sometimes weird but almost always interesting essays, usually about how two people met and fell in love, or out of it. Some of the stories end in weddings and bliss, others in sadness or regret. For readers, the “Modern Love” columns provide connections to strangers and stories that often mimic what’s going on in their own lives or the lives of people they know.
It was a natural idea for Amazon Studios and The New York Times to turn those columns into a TV series, fleshed out and dramatized by writers, actors and directors in half-hour episodes.
An all-star cast including Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey and Dev Patel has collaborated with writers (John Carney, Sharon Horgan) and directors (Carney, Horgan, Emmy Rossum, Tom Hall) to bring the words to the small screen in a way that isn’t fussy or overly produced. So much credit goes to Carney (Once, Sing Street), whose writing and directing, in particular, balance the series and give it a natural, simple realism (yes, even in dance scenes featuring Hathaway’s character, whose mental issues are taking a toll).
The Irish director and writer’s steady hand here is the perfect touch, as things kick off with New Yorker Maggie (Cristin Milioti) and her doorman Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa) in a story that veers from simple to sweet to surprisingly touching and light on its feet in every scene. Guzmin disapproves of Maggie’s romantic choices and she oddly doesn’t stand up to him (but nor does she listen), until a surprise pregnancy comes into play.
If you’re familiar with the New York Times column then you know there’s almost always something unique in the recipe of the story, and in each of the five of eight episodes I saw, it would have been easy for either the writing or directing or even the acting to add a little more than necessary. But restraint saves the day and makes the series.
Carney succeeds multiple times throughout, particularly with the story of young developer Joshua (Dev Patel), who is being interviewed about his online dating app by reporter Julie (Catherine Keener), and reveals to her that his seemingly one chance at true love (with a woman played by Caitlin McGee) has been derailed. Trying not to linger on the pain too long, he has been focusing on perfecting the app instead of wallowing in self-pity. Smitten with the story, Julie believes he should circle back to find out what happened, sharing, in turn, a story of her own about a supposed true love (played by Andy Garcia) that didn’t quite work out as expected. Here’s a multiple-level narrative that doesn’t need too much messing about and Carney deftly tells it and puts all of the actors in position to do excellent, engaging (and charming) work.
It’s a standout piece that ultimately sells the franchise. Not every story works — a daddy-issue tale starring Julia Garner and Shea Whigham misses — but most do, even when Carney is absent.
The excellent and multi-talented Sharon Horgan directs Fey and John Slattery as spouses whose marriage has soured but who discover some post-therapy happiness, and it’s a nice blend of funny and real. Fey gives an excellent performance that leans away from the comedy you’d expect.
Carney delivers again, this time directing Hathaway and Gary Carr (The Deuce) in an episode about bi-polar disorder, complete with dance scenes that effectively convey the manic nature of Hathaway’s character before the piece pivots with grace to darker, down notes.
Almost all the choices in Modern Love are the right ones. It’s a simple, endearing collection that makes for compelling television.
Created, directed and written by: John Carney
Additional episodes written and directed by: Sharon Horgan, Emmy Rossum, Tom Hall, Audrey Wells
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Andy Garcia, Catherine Keener, John Slattery, Dev Patel, Caitlin McGee, Laurentiu Possa, Julia Garner, Shea Whigham, Brandon Victor Dixon, Olivia Cooke, Sofia Boutella, John Gallagher, Jr.
Premieres Oct. 18 on Amazon
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