Inside ‘Modern Love’: The Next ‘Black Mirror’... but With Feelings

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A single woman gets pregnant and realizes that the most profound relationship in her life is the one she has with her doorman.

A married couple nearing divorce finds an unexpected path to connection on the tennis court.

A gay couple’s life is upended when their desire to adopt a child leads to a homeless pregnant woman living on their couch for her last trimester.

A woman with bipolar disorder, after years of denying herself love, finally decides to share the truth about her mental health with a man who wants to date her.

These are real stories written by real people, published in The New York Times’ popular “Modern Love” column. The weekly column has exploded in popularity since its launch in 2004 thanks to emotional essays written by the paper’s readers about personal relationships: some funny, some tragic, some about romance, some about friendship, some totally bizarre, and all about different kinds of love.

The columns have served as inspiration for a podcast and, now, an anthology TV series launching Friday on Amazon.

Writer-director John Carney, known for inciting mass swoons and harnessing booming emotion in films like Once and Sing Street, masterminded the TV adaptation, eight entries directly inspired by the columns that enlist different directors (including himself, Emmy Rossum and Sharon Horgan) and A-list actors to establish standalone episodes.

How I Met Your Mother’s Cristin Milioti, who also starred in the Broadway version of Once, is the pregnant woman. Tina Fey and John Slattery head to therapy on the court as the married couple. Fleabag’s Hot Priest himself, Andrew Scott, leads the adoption episode, while Anne Hathaway plays Lexi, the woman with bipolar disorder, in an episode that features singing and dancing in fully staged production numbers set at a grocery store.

Think of Modern Love, then, as Black Mirror... but with feelings.

“I love romantic stories, and I don’t see them in the cineplexes that much right now,” Hathaway told reporters this summer, beaming while apologizing for her “pregnancy brain” as she charmingly rambled on. “For me, it was really exciting because it was a way for me to tell a genre of story that I love telling that I don’t really get to tell anymore in a way that felt really fresh.”

“We’re not as alone as we think we are…”

When the column was launched 15 years ago, the title “Modern Love” was deliberately chosen to expand its scope beyond romance.

There are so many other ways people meaningfully connect—or search for connection—in today’s world, that a focus on romantic love would have been reductive. Whether or not a person makes it to the altar isn’t as interesting as whether or not a person finds a path to understanding themselves and better navigating the complications in their lives. As a happy ending, that’s ambiguous, sure. But so is life.

Turning the columns into a series took more than four years of development, which involved choosing the right performers, directors, outlet, and, most importantly, stories to tell. That’s where Daniel Jones comes in.

Jones has edited the column since its launch, watching it grow from a small project he worked on with little notice to a multimedia phenomenon featuring a singing Anne Hathaway. His institutional memory was invaluable in shepherding the series to television. He certainly has his favorites over the years, but more importantly, he’s gained a sense of what kinds of stories, of the countless submissions that flood his inbox each week, will pluck at a readership’s raw nerve; the column’s fans aren’t always in the mood for fluff.

“It's interesting to see what does get people stirred up both positively and negatively,” he tells me, speaking in Los Angeles during a press push for the show this summer. “It's in that sort of frisson, I think, that is a lot of the success of the column.”

In addition to the four earlier mentioned episodes, for example, is one in which a journalist (Catherine Keener) talks her interview subject (Dev Patel) through his fidelity issues. In another, a young woman with “daddy issues” (Julia Garner) navigates a relationship with an older man (Shea Wigham). And in the final of eight episodes, titled “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap,” a woman in her seventies discusses the unique experience of encountering love later in life.

Not all the stories end neatly tied in a bow, but each get at a specific kind of emotional need, whether or not it’s expressed, that many people are craving: an antidote of sorts to a palpable cynicism and jadedness, if not outright darkness, blanketing culture today.

Jones reckons that the series is happening at exactly the right time.

“Just in the past couple of years, with all the political tumultuousness and meanness, people are looking for kindness now,” he says. “And those one-on-one relationships that are the most important things in our lives. Maybe we’re trying to shut out some of the noise and pay attention to being good to each other.”

The series gets off to a touching start with Milioti’s episode. It’s a deceptively simple story. It takes a surprise pregnancy for a single woman in New York to realize that the person who has consistently been there for her is her doorman, a relationship she learns to accept and cherish. No, they don’t fall in love. But their story is a needed reminder that in life, there are profound relationships we have but don’t think to acknowledge. We’re not as alone as we think we are.

“A kindred spirit or connection can be just as powerful as what you see in movies when people fall in love on the street,” Milioti tells me.

That her episode explores a love that exists outside romance is her favorite thing about it. “It really leans into the gray. I think as a culture, we’re desperate for a black and whiteness. You just look at our political divide. There's like no room for discourse. It's either this or it's nothing. And I think that in life we cling to that too, because it's control and it's assuredness. The gray is what life actually is, and it's uncomfortable and it's vulnerable.”

Especially when you consider that Milioti herself starred in an episode of Black Mirror, last year’s Emmy-nominated “USS Callister,” the comparisons to the dystopian anthology series are inevitable. But if some of the best episodes of Black Mirror explore how technology and the future could actually bring us together—”San Junipero” or “Hang the DJ,” for example—then Modern Love stands out for exposing that we already have the tools for that kind of intense connection. We just have distracted ourselves from using them.

More, it’s remarkable, in today’s TV landscape, to strip a narrative down purely to emotions and feelings.

“I'm like the 10 billionth person to say this, but we live in a very social media-saturated age, where everyone thinks they're experiencing intimacy and connection but actually we're more isolated than we have ever been,” Milioti says. “I think that people want to put out more of a front and this shows that there is vulnerability, that no one has it perfect. Everyone's a mess. I'm sort of very for that.”

When I spoke to the British actor Gary Carr (Downton Abbey, The Deuce), who co-stars in Hathaway’s episode, he had a refreshingly optimistic take on why the series is so topical, and why the need for love is on the top of everyone’s minds.

“I feel like there was so much more love being introduced into the world now,” he says. “Anytime when there is darkness or struggles or in life, I think there’s a resurgence of love, because that’s what we need.”

“A different way to tell a love story…”

Jones himself can authoritatively speak to the value a television treatment adds to the original Times columns. He brings up the example of what is perhaps the most famous “Modern Love” entry.

In March 2017, the Times published the essay “You May Want to Marry My Husband” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Rosenthal wrote the piece in the last days of her battle with ovarian cancer. In it, she explains her tragic circumstances, tells the story of how she fell in love with her husband of 26 years, Jason, and makes the case for why someone else would be lucky to date him after she passes. It is, in essence, a dating profile for her husband.

Readers were destroyed by the beauty of the essay. Ten days after it published, Rosenthal passed away.

When the piece first came to Jones, it was already delayed, having been toiling in the reader’s submission box, which can understandably take months to get through. Finally, someone flagged the piece and quickly brought it to the book review editor, who happened to be on vacation, meaning it took still more time for it to find its way to Jones.

He immediately knew they should publish it, but it also needed an editorial process—a rushed one at that, complicated by the fact that there was already a queue of other columns scheduled to be published. He had to edit it, fact-check it, and do it all while Rosenthal barely had the breath to keep up a conversation on the phone.

It landed like an emotional atom bomb when it finally published. But until then, Jones had an almost clinical relationship to the piece. It’s only when he heard it read as part of the Modern Love podcast that he succumbed to its heartbreak.

That’s become a typical response for him. Once a week, he’ll receive a rough cut of the podcast and only then, for the first time, will he be as moved as readers, trying to hide his tears from coworkers near his carrel desk in the Times Square New York Times office. When, after all these years of development, he was sent early screeners of the Modern Love TV episodes, he stayed up until 2 am watching them all at once. “I was a blubbering mess,” he says.

Albeit from a different perspective, Hathaway also spoke to reporters about why she feels this Black Mirror-style, TV anthology format is a perfect fit, at a perfect time, for these columns. She misses telling love stories.

“I think we all identify with feeling busier than we ever have [been],” she said. “And it’s just that question of what’s going to get you to the movie theater? What is worth the time to have a cinematic experience? And I think with some of these more intimate stories, people have realized that they can still get a lot out of them by staying at home. So I think that’s probably why they’ve gone that way.”

She’s grateful because that means they didn’t become extinct. “Because but for this, they might have,” she continued. “Don’t get me wrong. I love watching a superhero fall in love as much as the next person, but this is a different way to tell a love story.”

She smiled, knowing she was about to land the perfect punchline: “My relationship with my couch is very intimate. And being able to watch my shows on it is fantastic.”

Everyone I spoke to acknowledged there might be an initial dismissal or scoffing at the project, this show with big celebrities about feelings and love, what with everything else going on in the world.

But if by virtue of its logline, it sounds simple, so too should be the show’s value and its impact.

“I would just love for anyone who watches it to feel less alone,” Milioti says. “If this show can go toward inspiring people to reach out or open their hearts, I mean, I know this sounds like so Hallmark, but what else do we have right now?”

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