Modern Love Has Nothing New to Say About Modern Love

Amazon’s anthology series based on the popular New York Times column flattens the collection of stories with trite idealism.

By summarizing the tales in one orderly sequence, the finale minimizes its eight stories into a bunch of clichés. (Christopher Saunders / Amazon Studios)

Most of the eight episodes of Amazon’s anthology series Modern Love, based on the New York Times column of the same name, examine romantic love at different stages: the start of a relationship, the middle of a long and turbulent marriage, the aftermath of missing the one who got away. Several episodes explore platonic love, and a few toe the line between friendship and romance. One, about a woman with bipolar disorder, even explores self-love.

In the final episode, these New York City–set stories receive a coda in the form of an extended montage in which all of the characters’ lives intersect. As a thunderstorm rolls in, Margot (played by Jane Alexander), a widow from earlier in the finale, jogs past a Volkswagen van transporting Karla (Olivia Cooke), a pregnant homeless woman from the previous episode. The same van drives past other characters (a woman and her doorman from the first episode), who then walk past another (the CEO of a dating app, from Episode 2), who sprints past others (the couple from Episode 5), and so on, implying that although the people in Modern Love’s separate stories may be strangers to one another, they’re all connected.

It’s a cute trick, pulled off by body doubles and clever staging. But as a closing meant to tie the show together, the episode fails to deliver any significant conclusions about the nature of love. Instead, by summarizing the tales in one orderly sequence, the finale flattens its eight stories into a bunch of clichés. No matter how the characters’ respective episodes wrapped up, they all get polished, happy endings in the montage: A married couple in therapy (played by Tina Fey and John Slattery), who came close to separating, continue playing tennis, their newfound hobby, in the rain. Have they repaired their relationship further, or are they just enjoying the game? A young woman (Julia Garner) who began a confused relationship with an older man (Shea Whigham) is seen embracing a man closer to her age. Is this unnamed stranger a new boyfriend she met after the events of her episode? Are they on their first date, or their fifth? Modern Love doesn’t care to explain; the camera pans up away from Garner’s character and her beau to glimpse Alexander’s Margot strolling across a bridge above their heads, ending the season.

The montage is a cacophony of elements in search of a point—a finale that has nothing to say. It’s a missed opportunity: Given the richness of Modern Love’s source material, plucked from hundreds of real-life tales about the messy, enlightening nature of love, it’s all the more frustrating that the series concludes with the shallow message that love simply … exists. (In New York’s most affluent neighborhoods anyway.)

Modern Love had the chance to build upon the Times’ original essays, but to its detriment, the show adapted them as faithfully as possible, yielding mostly dull interpretations. In the episode starring Fey and Slattery, the original columnist, Ann Leary, had viewed her and her husband’s tennis playing as a metaphor for the way they could continue to make their marriage work. “It occurred to me there was some sort of grace in my husband’s form,” she wrote, “and I felt it in mine, too, as we both worked to keep the game alive just a little longer, by trying to find each other’s sweet spot, by playing, for once, to the other’s advantage.” The show doesn’t capture that mix of relief and desperation in a marriage finally finding a way forward; as pleasant as it is to see Fey’s and Slattery’s characters continue to rally in the rain during the ending montage, there’s none of the “grace” Leary described. Here, tennis merely becomes a new activity.

Even when a column does get capably remixed for the screen, the tidy montage renders an unimaginative ending. In the episode featuring Anne Hathaway as Lexi, an entertainment lawyer with bipolar disorder, the writer-director John Carney illustrates Lexi’s state of mind through a bunch of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend–like set pieces (Lexi imagines herself in a musical). The installment is one of the series’ more creative endeavors. But in the finale, rather than delving further into the thorny territory of how a mental illness can affect romantic relationships, Lexi is shown wiping away a tear while riding her bike, and later smiling serenely at a bar with a friend. These wordless glimpses telegraph too little about her life. Without more context, they’re not just ambiguous; they’re useless.

The most egregious conclusion within the montage is a prequel to the events of Episode 5. In that installment, a couple (played by Sofia Boutella and John Gallagher Jr.) on their second date end up in the ER when Gallagher Jr.’s Rob accidentally slices his bicep on broken glass. The original essay, by the writer Brian Gittis, used the anecdote to discuss how an abnormal situation forced him to be himself around a woman he’d been nervous about.

Despite the extraordinary circumstances of the date, Gittis wrapped up his essay solemnly: “I would like to be able to say my story ends in an epiphany, with the end of my anxiety and the beginning of an enduring relationship. But the reality is she left me about a month later. Not because she had found me repulsive in the fluorescent light of the hospital, but for a more conventional reason: She missed her ex-boyfriend.” Modern Love doesn’t explore this bittersweet conclusion. Instead, the finale rewinds to imagine a meet-cute for the couple in the story. It’s a scene from a rom-com, uncomplicated and predictable, when it could have been subversive and just as sweet.

Maybe Modern Love didn’t set out to be a work that would end with all the answers to the biggest questions about love. Its primary selling point is its A-list cast, and highlighting such star-studded ensembles by revisiting them with an all-the-characters-are-connected montage is nothing new. Modern Love’s grand finale shares DNA with the end of the anthology film Paris, Je T’aime; the airport scene in Love Actually; and the director Garry Marshall’s holiday-centric films. But unlike its predecessors, Modern Love had eight episodes to explore relationships, and could have mined much more nuance out of the nebulous concept in its title.

That’s the point of Modern Love, after all. “Love, for me, is less about definitions than examples,” the column’s longtime editor, Daniel Jones, wrote in his introduction to the 2019 essay collection. “These tales shock and instruct. They provoke laughter and heartache and tears. Occasionally (it’s true) they aren’t even very modern. Always they pry open the oyster shell of human love to reveal the dark beauty within.”Modern Love doesn’t reveal such dark beauty; it seals that metaphorical shell shut, ignoring it in favor of an empty takeaway. Modern love, according to the show, means Hollywood romances. Real-life ones—with all their painful, wonderful baggage—will have to remain words on a page.