Everything is a TV series now—current events, long-buried crimes, Tinder. Over the past year the New York Times has eagerly been making “the newspaper” part of that list: The Fourth Estate, a Showtime miniseries; The Weekly, an ongoing docuseries on FX that explores a print feature each episode; and now Modern Love, an anthology series debuting October 18 based on the popular Sunday Styles column edited by Daniel Jones. The series’ showrunner is John Carney, who wrote and directed Once and Sing Street.
Modern Love, the column, is one of the most high-profile venues for personal essay in the English language, a space that searches for the human commonalities amidst the unique and sometimes alienating details of our contemporary lives. Modern Love, the series, turns each adapted essay into a terribly schmaltzy ordeal of starry-eyed montage, which makes a survey of love in New York into a sightseeing tour of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. The series’ shiny gloss is matched only by its cornball sentiment, which makes Modern Love feel like a commercial for a credit card company. Essays are round pegs, and episodes are square holes; few installments of Modern Love carry enough dramatic heft or character work to be worth the effort, and none retain what is so lovely and sharp-edged about the prose that inspired them. At times it seems as if the essay’s conceit limits the episode about it: Tina Fey and John Slattery play a married couple rekindling their spark through tennis—this makes two Mad Men–alum tennis partners for Liz Lemon—but the poetry of the tennis game doesn’t translate to the screen, and the viewer’s left wondering why the couple didn’t talk more at dinner.
It does not help that this contemporary collection of stories about New Yorkers in love is almost exclusively about the feelings of writers with very nice apartments. (An entire episode is about the relationship between a woman and her doorman.) The show is at its strongest when it moves away from the solipsism of personal essay and toward the tension of conflicting desires and fraught conversations—which it finds in its best episode, “Hers Was a World of One,” starring Olivia Cooke and Andrew Scott. And yet even then, it’s alarming what the show doesn’t do. In multiple episodes, the nonwhite characters serve as props for the white narrator’s journey—whether that’s the sympathetic coworker, the earnest therapist, the one-time fling, the caring roommate, or even the life partner of the lead. It was quite surprising to see that Brandon Kyle Goodman, who plays Scott’s husband in “Hers Was a World of One,” didn’t even merit mention in the opening credits, despite serving as the emotional foundation for the episode.
Modern Love is displaying a subtle marginalization that, in other arenas, I’d venture, the New York Times would criticize. But this is the trouble with branded content masquerading as television: Are these stories that really need to be retold—or does converting thorny prose into slippery, well-meaning episodes serve another purpose? It’s hard to shake the feeling that Modern Love exists to communicate a fantasy of this particular New York, experienced by these particular upper-class people, in order to sell something to someone. Maybe more Prime memberships, maybe more Times subscriptions. The show’s fantasy is a lifestyle fantasy; perhaps watching makes you slightly more likely to buy a chunky cable-knit sweater with free two-day shipping.