The deceit of 'Modern Love': Stranger than fiction

The TV show, like love itself, makes us expect a movie before hitting us with a brand of life that merely inspires the movies

Watching Modern Love, an eight-episode anthology series based on the popular New York Times weekly column, is a disorienting experience. How is it possible to be both enlightened and disappointed at once? I detested and devoured the eight episodes in less than a day. I hated that I liked these self-satisfied little New York vignettes of romantic love. There were times when I cringed and choked up at the same moment. I thought I had outgrown my cheesy Gary Marshall phase. But this feeling is a little more complicated than guilty pleasure. It has more to do with the familiarity of storytelling, than the originality of myth-building.

Stranger than fiction

Sample the vignettes: A working girl shares a trusting equation with a paternal doorman, a young tech wiz and his middle-aged profile writer exchange tales of heartbreak, a bipolar lawyer struggles with her crippling condition, a couple takes therapy at the crossroads of their ordinary marriage, an awkward first date ends in the hospital, a 21-year-old lady looks for fatherly love from her attractive old boss, a gay couple adjusts to the nomadic mother of the baby they are slated to adopt, and an old lady mourns the death of her new soul mate.

None of these characters are made up. Each of the stories is adapted from first-person pieces written by real people. The reason they are told – the reason most personal essays are published – is because their truths are stranger than fiction. They sound like movies without having to bear the burden of being movies. They sound like independent music that bears a passing resemblance to pop hits. John Carney (Once, Begin Again, Sing Street), the writer-director of four Modern Love episodes, is a man of music. He understands that cinematic dissonance – the artful juxtaposition of extraordinary sounds with ordinary images – is a charming facet of love. It fools the viewer into looking for something larger than life – happy endings, closed narratives, soaring coincidences – without really letting them forget that this is life itself.

Great expectations

As a result, all the episodes have a dated 90s rom-com vibe about them. The cinematography looks clean and packaged. The characters behave like...characters. The faces are familiar – Dev Patel, Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Andrew Scott, Catherine Keener, Andy Garcia. Even New York looks as if Pretty Woman just wrapped its millennial-boomer schedule. It’s designed in a way that makes me expect Maggie (Cristin Milioti) to ditch her LA job offer to stay close to her guardian-angel doorman. It makes me expect both journalist Julie (Catherine Keener) and ex-flame Michael (Andy Garcia) to ditch their loveless marriages to rekindle their affair after her cover story repairs the broken romance of its subject (Dev Patel). It makes me expect handsome Jeff (Gary Carr) to understand Lexi’s (Anne Hathaway) illness and keep coming back, irrespective of her moods. It makes me expect Karla (Olivia Cooke) – the homeless and idealistic nomad – to stay back with the wealthy gay couple who adopts her baby. It makes me expect.

Modern Love, like love itself, makes us expect a movie before hitting us with a brand of life that merely inspires the movies. Quirky Maggie leaving New York anyway is not supposed to happen because it happens too often. When it does, the airy grammar of mainstream rom-com imagery is both at odds and oddly synonymous with the pragmatism of real events. The language is imaginary, but the words remain real. The look is glossily philanthropic, but the expression is comfortably misanthropic. Michael giving his marriage a second chance while Julie walks out of hers is not supposed to happen either; when it does, the series inadvertently suggests that stories are most rewarding when the reward is yet to dawn upon the writer. Lexi locating a friend instead of boyfriend is not supposed to happen; when it does, the show reveals that the means to an end can be just as satisfying as an end. When Karla continues with her hunter-gatherer existence, we hear a moving monologue about how she is perhaps the purest and most primal form of humanity.

Nothing ends the way we want it to. It just ends the way it should, like an excerpt of a longer story. Like a love ballad scored to the lyrics of a raging rap anthem. And it proves that personal essays – an art form often frowned upon for its selfish disposition – are essentially films that are unable to locate the perspective of a camera. After all, it was Carney who showed us how, not long ago, an Irish street singer left after recording (the album of) his dreams with a Czech busker girl. They made music, loved and left in a film whose title – Once – fooled us into expecting Upon A Time.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 1:35:03 PM |

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