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In search of a happy ending

The Amazon Prime series ‘Modern Love’ is a reinvention of a ‘New York Times’ column about relationships

Hollywood has perfected the art of taking a cliché, shaking it, not stirring it mind you, and giving us a Modern Love with a New York-sized olive to chew on.

Fifteen years after they started a column called Modern Love, soliciting unique stories of relationships from their readers, The New York Times has reinvented it into a franchise with a successful podcast, book and TV series. Here we get a replay of the best of the column but told ironically by superstars. Jake Gyllenhaal and Sandra Oh do in the podcast what Anne Hathaway and Dev Patel do on the show.

In eight episodes, we have a showcase of love, across demographics in New York, with all the glamour of Hollywood gently massaging our beautiful people to introspect, desire, connect, and even part in death at an unhurried and leisurely pace.

Unlike earlier attempts to segue love and typically urban situations into an anthology directed by superstar directors, like in New York Stories (1989) or Paris, je t’aime (2006), or even the 2008 New York, I Love you, Modern Love does not go for the deep or the soul of the relationship between people and their city. In Modern Love, New York is like a beautiful mannequin watching and recording its denizens’ lives. It does not make an intervention. Ever.

Leading the star brigade on the show is Hathaway. She plays a bi-polar lawyer who lives a double life as a Rita Hayworth lookalike when manic and an exhausted sick person when down. It’s called Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am. This is stylistically the most visual and entertaining story and Hathaway shows why she is a star. There is music and dance but there is also pain and helplessness. The story is touching not just for its attempt to show the struggle a person with mental illness may face trying to date or find love but with friendship and acceptance.

An interesting episode is called Hers Was a World of One, featuring Andrew Scott and Olivia Cooke with a walk on by Ed Sheeran. There are so many complex themes raised in this episode where a gay couple want to adopt a baby and are connected by an adoption agency with a pregnant but homeless woman. The writing is very self-aware, and in a millennial fashion, it pokes fun at the entitled worldview of its protagonists. The woman is homeless because she would rather not engage with society (which she feels is constraining and claustrophobic as is living in a house!). Scott’s character, on the other hand, wants to do things the right way with a dose of understanding and politically correct liberalism until he is finally exposed for his hypocrisy. The two come together with the birth of the child. The whole episode is told with a neatness and gloss that makes the actual point of conflict (homelessness versus entitlement) seem superficial. One wonders about the actual story sent for the column!

As the Rolling Stone review of Modern Love noted, “The characters are culturally diverse, but almost all of them are well-to-do; even the woman (Olivia Cooke) who is letting Scott and his husband adopt her baby is homeless as a philosophical choice rather than an economic necessity.” The sense of the series is more Post Modern than Modern Love.

It would be great to see a similar series out of India. Many of our best and funniest writers have agony aunt columns that cover the spectrum of relationships. Cyrus Broacha, Pooja Bedi, Bachi Kakaria and Shobha De all of them have been privy to such columns and may well contribute to the Indian equivalent of Modern Love.

An early attempt at putting women at the heart of the narrative on lust was made by Netflix in 2018 with the anthology Lust Stories. Apparently, a sequel is planned for 2020 called Ghost Stories!

In an interview to The Oprah Magazine, the curator of the original Modern Love, the column, Daniel Jones says, “Especially in these times, it seems like there’s a need for stories that are honest about problems but optimistic in terms of their spirit. Let’s talk about things that are real and that are important — and what’s more important than love? In that sense, the most important thing in anyone’s life is relationships. It’s just how it is. I wouldn’t say people overcome their problems in these essays, but they understand them better, and that’s the best kind of victory is just to understand yourself better and understand relationships better. Often people will think a happy ending to a story is when things turn out well. For me, a happy ending to a story is when someone has a better understanding than they did before. And a sad story is when someone, regardless of the circumstance, doesn’t learn anything. That kind of revelation is just the goal.” Maybe there is potential in this series after all. If only they would stick to the spirit of the original column and get off the starstruck mega-production.

Modern Love Season 2 should get real and tell us stories of the people of New York as they go about their messy and tough lives, interacting with each other and their city because it is that life that is the real revelation and goal of the franchise.

We are all in search of Modern Love, the real kind. In New York, in Paris, and in Mumbai.

www.newslaundry.com