Modern Love review: Is this Teflon-smooth view of human connection a balm for angry times or just straightforwardly dull?

The biggest stars of the anthology series’ second run – Kit Harington, Minnie Driver and Tobias Menzies – are given scripts with enough humour and warmth for them to get their teeth into... but not all their co-stars are so fortunate

Ed Cumming
Friday 13 August 2021 06:38 BST
Trailer: Modern Love Season 2

“Newspaper column turned into ritzy entertainment” is not a busy category. Sex and the City is a glaring exception rather than the rule. Bridget Jones; Marley & Me; Garfield. That’s about it. The paper column is not, on the whole, a sexy format, being mostly a space where insecure narcissists can vent half-formed theories about things, their careers carried along mostly by inertia. They all wish they were TV writers, of course, but they don’t have the sauce. TV’s a proper industry, people take it seriously. You can’t muck around.

The most energetic effort at this tricky manoeuvre is Amazon’s Modern Love. It’s based on The New York Times column that tells the story of a different unusual contemporary relationship each week. The format ought to be a good fit for an anthology: there’s usually enough juice in the stories to wring half an hour of telly out of them, but not so much detail that the adaptation can’t spruce things up and take liberties where appropriate. Despite this promising premise, and the talent drawn by Amazon’s bulging wallet, the first series only had two excellent episodes. In one, Dev Patel and Catherine Keener led a merry platonic dance around each other as a tech entrepreneur and the journalist sent to interview him. For the other, Sharon Horgan wrote a script for Tina Fey and John Slattery, and if you can’t combine those ingredients into a tasty cake, you’ve no business baking.

Series two isn’t perfect, either, although it enjoys a higher hit rate than the first outing. The poster stars this time around include Kit Harington and Tobias Menzies, who were in Game of Thrones, and Minnie Driver, who wasn’t. Harington and Driver are both obliged to put on something resembling an Irish accent. In “On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down”, Driver brings her usual heart and soul to a middle-aged widow, whose true love appears to be her sports car. She’s reluctant to sell, for reasons that become clear. Then in “Strangers on a (Dublin) Train”, Harington has a meet-cute with pretentious student Paula (Lucy Boynton, excellent) as coronavirus restrictions descend on Ireland.

They’re given scripts with enough humour and warmth for them to get their teeth into. Not all their co-stars are so fortunate. As in the debut season, some of these episodes are slight to the point of flatness. “The Night Girl Finds a Day Boy” stars Zoe Chao and Gbenga Akinnagbe as a fledgling couple, Zoe and Jordan, who have to build a relationship around Zoe’s inverted sleeping patterns. Due to an obscure sleep disorder and her job in a nightclub, Zoe stays up through the night and goes to bed at 8am. It’s kooky, but as Jordan soon realises, it makes the more mundane building blocks of a contemporary relationship, like brunch, harder to lay. In “How Do You Remember Me?” Ben (Marquis Rodriguez, charismatic) and Robbie (Zane Pais) enjoy one perfect night together which is ruined when Ben gets some bad news over the phone. Months later, they see each other walking down the street. Are their memories of the night the same? Could they have been something more? Do we really mind either way?

Neither episode is offensive, exactly, but there’s none of the chemistry between the leads, or dialogue with a pulse, that might lift such slender stories above the ordinary. Love is hard enough in real life, but on screen, it’s an extreme feat of alchemy. “I lost sight of the fact that in a relationship you choose to be with someone who is inherently living in their own reality,” says Jordan, apologising to Zoe after an argument. Nora Ephron rests easy.

Although it lacks the other episodes’ star power, “Am I …? Maybe this Quiz Will Tell Me” is when this series hits its stride. Lulu Wilson plays a teenager, Katie, making bewildering early sorties into her sexuality. Without histrionics, Wilson conveys the emotional magma chamber of the age, where you go toddler-ballistic at your mum one minute, then engage in a complex, mature sexual powerplay the next. The episode’s astute on the amplifying effect a smartphone can have on a fraught time in life. Adolescence was never easy, but phones have made it even harder. Beset by doubts and insecurities, Katie takes online quizzes promising to itemise how gay she is. Technology lets her message people in secret, spy on potential crushes, fall even more into a pit of her own anxiety. Wasn’t there enough to worry about already?

Katie’s a rare Modern Love character in showing a less-than-admirable side for more than a fluttered heartbeat or two. Mostly this fantasy land is populated by earnest paragons who want the best for each other and whose fledgling romances are threatened only by happenstance or timing. The America presented in these stories is like a supermarket of love, where the big question is choosing which one you like from all the options. Every resolution is satisfactory, even when the endings aren’t happy. Modern Love isn’t much like modern love and your appetite for the series will depend on whether you find this Teflon-smooth view of human connection a balm for angry times, or straightforwardly dull. Personally, I crave more spice with all the sugar.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in