Modern Love S2
WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
The second season of an anthology of eight short films, each telling the story of romantic love in the modern world, based on the true stories told in a famous New York Times column called “Modern Love”.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
The anthology TV show has made a gigantic comeback in the streaming era, almost at exactly the time that Black Mirror went from being a beloved cult favourite on British TV to a worldwide smash as soon as it moved to Netflix with its third season. Science fiction, fantasy and horror remain the kings of anthology TV, but these genres have also been joined by – and sometimes joined with – a genre that should be made for the format: romance. Unfortunately, romance anthology shows have had trouble gaining much traction, with shows like Soulmates and Easy never really achieving the popularity of Black Mirror or Haunting of Hill House.
Though it certainly suffered from being too slight and fluffy for its own good (I remember nearly none of it), the first season of Modern Love came closest to delivering the goods as its simple premise of exploring the many incarnations of romantic love in our modern world – all based on true stories appearing in a wildly popular New York Times column – provided plenty of material to work with. It certainly didn’t hurt that the terrifically talented John Carney oversaw it – the man responsible for truly excellent romantic comedy-dramas like Once, Begin Again and Sing Street. It never came close to the greatness of those films, but it clearly came from the same creative mind.
Carney once again returns for season 2, and his episodes range from solidly good to solidly wonderful, but something went very, very wrong with most of the rest of the season. Though there are three episodes that are well worth watching here, the bad episodes drag the season down so much, and the mid-range ones are so frustrating in how close they come to being worthwhile, that I can’t in good conscience give the season as a whole more than those two stars. Especially because all three of the really good ones are grouped together right at the start of the season! Do check out the good ones, though: they’re definitely worth your time.
Going through each of them briefly, then, with individual ratings…
Episode 1: “On a Serpentine Road with The Top Down”. (5 stars)
Like the first season, we kick things off with a bang with probably the best of the current batch of episodes. Minnie Driver stars as a happily remarried woman whose only connection to her dead husband is an old sports car that keeps on breaking down on her and may, finally, need to be put out to pasture. The episode is a simple exploration of her decision on whether or not to part with the car and what it means for her relationship with her second husband and her college-age daughter, but it’s a beautiful piece of work with unsurprisingly strong performances and real depth as it has a lot to say on the nature of love, grief and holding onto better days. Unsurprisingly, this one was written and directed by John Carney.
Episode 2: “The Night Girl Finds a Day Boy”. (4 stars)
Another winner that sees Zoë Chao’s Zoe, a woman with delayed sleep phase syndrome who sleeps all day and is awake all night, begins a relationship with Gbenga Akinnagbe’s Jordan and the two are forced to confront the reality of a relationship based around their completely different sleeping and waking hours. Maybe it’s just because I, personally, may have an undiagnosed case of delayed sleep phase syndrome (it’s certainly one explanation), but the premise of this one was fascinating and writer, Sarah Heyward (Girls) and director, Jesse Peretz (Glow, Girls, Loads of TV), do a great job of diving into the realities of such a disorder and how it would affect a relationship. Zoe and Jordan aren’t my favourite couple this season (they’re both a bit hard to like at times), but this is easily one of the most memorable episodes of Modern Love to date.
Episode 3: “Strangers on a (Dublin) Train”. (5 stars)
John Carney again takes the helm for the most charming and funny episode of the season as he re-teams with his Sing Street cohorts, Jack Reynor and Lucy Boynton, for the story of how a bookish young woman, Paula (Boynton), instantly hits it off with Michael (Kit Harrington), a handsome professional, while the two are riding on a train back home as a Covid-19 lockdown looms. Rather than exchanging numbers, the two agree to the much more romantic option of meeting again on the same train two weeks later. But when the lockdown proves to be a lot longer and more intense than either could have predicted, a romantic gesture becomes something much more challenging. With an instantly likeable central couple, killer supporting turns from Miranda Richardson and Raynor (once again playing the romantic lead’s brother) and the way it makes the most of its pandemic setting, this is a delight from top to bottom. Even if its ending is frustratingly open-ended. 5 stars.
Episode 4. “A Life Plan for Two, Followed by One”. (1 star)
Ouch. Talk about whiplash. This is a very bad episode that is made all the worse by following the season’s incredibly strong opening salvo. The premise is fine as standup comic, Lil (Dominique Fishback) tells the story of how she met the love of her life, Vince (Isaac Powell), when she first laid eyes on him as the new girl in school when she was all of twelve years old, but seemed destined to occupy the dreaded “friend zone” with him forever. It may just be that I’m really, really out of touch with today’s youth culture, but this perfectly OK story is ruined by a bunch of fantastically irritating characters, insipid dialogue, unimpressive performances and an annoyingly generic R&B/ hip-hop soundtrack. I barely made it through this one.
Episode 5. “Am I…? Maybe This Quiz Will Tell Me”. (2 stars)
This one is slightly better, but only slightly. The premise for this episode is particularly promising as it revolves around a teenage girl who, unsure of her sexuality, takes an online quiz to find some answers. The test comes up “asexual”, but after falling for a girl in her class, she starts to wonder if maybe a random online test is not the answer to all her questions. It’s a premise that is ripe for satire or even just broad character-comedy, but the writing/ directing team of Logan George and Celine Held (both coming from the world of short films) decide to play it not just straight but straight with a cinema verite filming style that turns it into an uninvolving and, once again, quite annoying mess. Even just as a coming out/coming of age story, there are far too many great ones out there to bother with this. 2 stars. At most.
Episode 6. “In the Waiting Room of Estranged Spouses”. (3 stars)
Not quite up to the better episodes of the season, but we’re at least back on sturdier ground with a story of an ex-marine and a new mom who discover that their respective spouses are cheating on each other. Writer, Susan Soon He Stanton (Succession) and director John Crowley (Brooklyn, The Goldfinch), bring a more mature, subdued touch, exploring the aftermath of broken relationships through the lens of post-traumatic stress disorder. Anna Paquin and Garrett Hedlund are, unsurprisingly solid as our central would-be couple, but the whole thing falls just short of realising its potential and ends up a wee bit dull in the process.
Episode 7. “How Do You Remember Me?”. (2.5 stars)
Mega-talented Broadway superstar and gifted voice-actor, Andrew Rannells turns his attention to writing and directing with this story of two men who, after spotting each other from across the street, each reminisce about their one and only night together, presenting two versions of the same events. Much of this season of Modern Love has suffered from good concepts being let down by bad, or at least unsatisfying, execution and, sadly, this is perhaps the season’s most disappointing episode. With a solid, if familiar, premise, very strong performances and empathetic writing, this should be a slam dunk, but it ends up as a somewhat dull and monotonous late entry in the series that is hurt all the more by being the fourth disappointing episode in a row.
Episode 8. “A Second Embrace, with Hearts and Eyes Open”. (3.5 stars)
The third of John Carney’s episodes – this time written by his brother, Kieran – this season finale isn’t quite up to the rest of his work on the show as, like so much of the season, it falls ever so slightly on the wrong side of dull, but it packs enough of an emotional punch to work as a satisfying close to an unsatisfying season. Sophie Okonedo and Tobias Menzies bring plenty of gravitas as a middle-aged divorced couple who rekindle their relationship just before she is diagnosed with an advanced form of breast cancer, and even if this is a bit of a departure from the usual lighter touch that Carney brings to even his most emotionally poignant work, it’s an affecting and effective exploration of mortality in the face of a relationship that is both excitingly new and weighed down with years of history.
This is a season of television that is, in short, significantly less than the sum of its parts that boasts some excellent episodes and a weighted average that should put it toe to toe with the better anthology shows out there, but its unfortunate sequencing and with so many episodes falling short of their potential, it ends up looking worse than it actually is. Check out those first three episodes, for sure, but proceed with caution for the rest – and for heaven’s sake, don’t try and binge the whole season at once.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: