Modern Love
Inspired by personal essays, each episode explores the complexities of love. (Illustration by Natasha McDonald, Columbia College Chicago)

‘Modern Love’ and the Oddities of 21st Century Affection

Viewers looking for a nuanced presentation of love, whether it be romantic or familial, will swoon over this new anthology series.

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Modern Love

Viewers looking for a nuanced presentation of love, whether it be romantic or familial, will swoon over this new anthology series.

Across the world, the concept of love seems to consume popular attention. Countless books, songs, TV shows and movies capitalize on the preoccupation — oftentimes with charming results. Despite this widespread fixation, nuances within the word “love” remain relatively unacknowledged. A strict script governs the way most people think about affection. Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. Boy and girl live happily ever after. The plot, characters and themes are each rigidly defined. Nearly 15 years ago, The New York Times launched a platform for sharing personal essays on the complexity of affection. Since then, “Modern Love” has inspired a book, podcast and, finally, a television show.

The anthology series “Modern Love” gets its plots and characters from the column’s most striking personal essays. With each episode, viewers meet new characters confounded by the toils of modern romance. As their stories progress, the oftentimes misguided protagonists will find love in unexpected places. If you’re a die-hard fan of romantic comedies, you can probably already guess the setting of this nod to the genre. That’s right, New York City. Although the series follows many of the genre’s well-known tropes, each episode sheds light on the charm, complexity and sometimes downright odd habits of the human heart.

In “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man,” platonic love receives a much-needed dose of recognition and praise. Based on The New York Times article of the same name, the story chronicles the affection between a woman and her observant doorman. Cristin Milioti and Laurentiu Possa portray the respective characters and capture the warmth of this bond with ease.

As Julie Margaret Hogben explains in the original essay, “Guzim was my doorman, and ours was a common and unsung friendship, that between women living in New York, single and alone, and the doormen who take care of them, acting as gatekeepers, bodyguards, confidants and father figures; the doormen who protect and deliver much more than Zappos boxes and FreshDirect, not because it’s part of the job, but because they’re good men.”  The story, and its celebration of often unapplauded connections, kicks off the series with an inarguably fresh motif.

Later, “Modern Love” grapples with another unacknowledged side of contemporary relationships: dating while in the throes of mental illness. “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am” details the love life of a woman living with bipolar disorder. On some days, Lexi embodies the sweet, sultry and sensational persona of Rita Hayworth. Her strawberry-blonde hair is smooth and shiny, flowing down her back in a wave of perfect curls. She sparkles from head to toe, and finds eligible bachelors everywhere she turns, even in the produce section of a supermarket.

Soon, however, Lexi’s disorder begins to eclipse her Hayworth-esque persona. In moments like these, she feels as if her body has “been dipped in slow-drying concrete.” The intelligent, driven woman stumbles into bed and stays there for bleak series of weeks. As you can imagine, Lexi’s constantly fluctuating brain chemistry complicates the relationships in her life. The author explains her plight brilliantly with the summation, “In love there’s no hiding: You have to let someone know who you are, but I didn’t have a clue who I was from one moment to the next. When dating me, you might go to bed with Madame Bovary and wake up with Hester Prynne. Worst of all, my manic, charming self was constantly putting me into situations that my down self couldn’t handle.”

Still, she desperately wants someone to love her, to accept her as she is, regardless of her mental state. By the end of the episode, she finds this special individual. Some viewers might find their identity surprising. Lexi’s newfound confidant isn’t a knight in shining armor but embodies a love capable of soothing her lonely heart.

In the episode “Hers Was a World of One,” “Modern Love” once again shows its penchant for unconventional situations. Based on the essay “D.J.’s Homeless Mommy,” the story follows a gay couple looking to adopt a baby. When the adoption agency finds a potential candidate, the two are elated. There’s only one catch: Their unborn child’s mother is homeless. The headstrong, passionate woman lives on the streets by her own volition. One day, sick of capitalism and the daily grind, their baby’s mother simply decided to truly live her convictions. Now, pregnant and without resources, she simply wants to ensure her child receives a good home.

At first, the couple is eager to accommodate their new friend’s every wish. After all, they’ve been waiting for a baby for years. Soon, however, the trio’s disparate worldviews lead to conflict. The mother invites strangers to the couple’s home and displays little respect for their property. When confronted, she casts judgment on the pair for halfheartedly living out their “hipster liberal” values. The couple cannot deny some of her pointed accusations. As the due date draws near, begrudging respect emerges between the reluctant acquaintances. Eventually, with their prospective worldviews broadened, warm affection blossoms between the friends.

When the series dives into the territory of romantic love, its presentation remains committedly honest. A couple fights, considers divorce and attends therapy religiously to save the fabric of their marriage. Misread signals abound between a lonely young woman and a fatherly coworker. A seemingly perfect pair must overcome infidelity, miscommunication and bad timing before happily ever after becomes an option. Death separates an elderly couple, leaving one party to grapple with the remnants of their shared life. However, even when circumstances seem bleak, unanticipated warmth always comforts the weary protagonists.

Overall, “Modern Love” celebrates the moments when unexpected affection arises. In contrast to a typical romantic comedy plot, the love within this series isn’t always sensual. Within the anthology’s eight episodes, Prince Charming rarely rears his perfectly styled head. Rather, the sweetest instances spring between friends as they carry each other’s burdens through life. Creative, complex and undeniably contemporary, “Modern Love” captures its namesake’s aura with ease.

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