One look at the sizable, arguably star-studded, cast assembled for Amazon Prime Video’s latest anthology series, Modern Love, not to mention its earnest, almost saccharine approach to stories of — obviously — love and romance and relationships of all shapes and sizes, and you could be forgiven for thinking it the latest project from Love Actually and Notting Hill creator, Richard Curtis. Instead, the series hails from John Carney, the writer-director of such films as Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street. Impressively, Carney’s emotional storytelling ambitions are in no way stifled by the move to television, if anything, they’re given the chance to branch out and explore in ways he hasn’t been able to before.
In making the move to television, Carney has surrounded himself with plenty of talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Though he writes and directs half of the series’ eight episodes, he’s joined by the likes of writer-director-actor Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe, Divorce), who delivers one of the biggest delights of the series, as well as actor-director Emmy Rossum (Shameless), and Tom Hall (Red Rock, Trivia). And though that will be of interest to some streaming the series when it drops on October 18, it’s the impressive cast that includes Academy Award-winner Anne Hathaway, as well as Tina Fey, John Slattery, Catherine Keener, Andy Garcia, Dev Patel, Olivia Cooke, Sofia Boutella, Gary Carr, Cristin Milioti, and recent Emmy winner Julia Garner that will likely be the big pull for most viewers.
Anthologies have been increasingly popular recently, particularly on streaming services. Not only do they allow for a wider array of stories to be told, they also attract the aforementioned big-name talent that helps get more eyeballs on a services’s content in an ever-crowded television marketplace. And Amazon has been pushing its first-class cast as the primary reason for subscribers to binge the television equivalent of a cozy sweater or bowl of comfort food that’s perfect for a quiet fall weekend indoors.
Based on the New York Times column and podcast of the same name, the series is concerned with human connection — romantic and otherwise. And, true to its source, it functions much of the time like a second-hand account of other people’s attempts at making that sought-after human connection — romantic or otherwise. Each story is a self-contained, half-hour episode, which makes bingeing not only possible, but far more enjoyable than if each installment had clocked in at an hour or more, like Amazon’s recently canceled anthology from Matt Weiner, The Romanoffs. While Modern Love may not have the same scale as Weiner’s foray into the world of streaming TV, its storytelling ambitions are strikingly similar.
The series takes several different swings — some big, some surprisingly small — early on, with the Hathaway-led ‘Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am’ offering a glimpse of A) Carney’s fondness for music in film and B) the series’ willingness to experiment with genre as a way of differentiating the episodes visually and thematically. For those watching in order — though that’s certainly not necessary — Hathaway’s episode comes in third, after the effective tear-jerker ‘When Your Doorman Is Your Main Man’ starring Cristin Milioti as a single mother to be and Laurentiu Possa as her doorman/surrogate father Guzmin. There’s also ‘When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist,’ which stars Catherine Keener, Dev Patel, and Andy Garcia. That episode tells two stories of missed chances and the hope of reconnection, even after decades have passed. It’s perhaps the most conventional of the first three stories, and certainly the most saccharine, though it’s anchored by convincing performances from Keener, Patel, and especially Garcia, as a veteran journalist still pining for the woman who got away after all those years.
Perhaps the biggest and most welcome surprise is ‘Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,’ the installment from Sharon Horgan, starring Tina Fey and John Slattery as a couple on the verge of a divorce. It's the flat-out funniest installment of the eight episodes, but’s also an interesting change of pace as Horgan’s sweet-but-cynical style of writing and comedy stands in stark contrast to Carney’s more sincere, arguably wholesome approach. The episode also serves as something of a palate cleanser (again, if you’re watching in order) after the expressionistic emotional roller coaster ride of Hathaway’s episode. And while Rossum and Hall’s episodes might not bring the same level of distinction, they do function well within the framework of the series as a whole.
The secret to the series’ success lies in its casting, and the memorable pairings of actors that emerge as a result. Rossum gets terrific performances out of both Garner and Shae Whigham, while Carney finds compelling couples with Keener and Garcia, as well as Hathaway and Gary Carr (The Deuce, Downton Abbey). Most notably, though, it’s hard to beat the pairing of Fey and Slattery. They are so good together and so convincing as a couple that it should be considered a crime they haven’t played husband and wife in anything before.
Modern Love can be judged on its parts or the sum of those parts. The former is uneven at times, but not enough to derail one’s enjoyment of the series as a whole. It is perhaps the most successful anthology Amazon’s put together so far, as its premise is simple yet broad enough to appeal to a wide variety of voices and styles, and still find distinct enough stories to please its intended audience.
Modern Love premieres Friday, October 18 exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.