hy do madmen direct traffic? You’ve seen them, the ones with sticky hair wearing grubby clothes and a smile wholly at odds with their situation. The ones who flail their arms at the chaos on traffic junctions, with an ostensible sense of control, even though the traffic ignores them entirely. Love can feel a little like that. Those madmen and women are all of us… and love – in its presence, its absence, at its strongest, or weakest – is the traffic snarling around us, completely out of our superintendence.
But what if us madmen had an instruction manual? Not one that told us what was right, but one that taught us that it was ok to be wrong? What if we knew that that it was important to be vulnerable. That it wasn’t your responsibility to save everyone you encountered? What if we knew how to bring that traffic to orderliness?
The New York Times’ Modern Love column is that manual for many of us. It is, what I imagine the Fal-e-Hafez must have been for medieval Iranians. The ghazals of the Persian poet Hafez Shirazi were believed to offer lost souls just the solution they needed. The legend goes thus: One regarded their problem / question in mind, and then sought the “Oracle of Shiraz” for guidance. The first line upon which the reader’s eyes fell, would be the answer to the problem.
In much the same way, for 15 years, reading a Modern Love column – any column – has offered people like me just the answers we needed, even when we didn’t know what the questions were. For, what can a romance between a man in his 40s and a woman in her 80s not teach you? (Seriously, read “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship”. I discover something new every time I refer to it.)
Around the time I told myself I was coming to terms with the single life, after spending a year on a conveyor belt of unsuitable boys, in meaningless engagements that were eventually corrosive, I read “Swiping Right on Tinder, but Staying Put”. The story detailed a young man’s frantic exchange of messages with a Tinder match, which remains just that – for neither of the two actually makes an effort to meet the other. A generation with a sea of communication tools at their fingertips, behaving like a bunch of hydrophobes.
At that point, this information had seemed oddly comforting. It was therapy.
The New York Times’ Modern Love column is, what I imagine the Fal-e-Hafez must have been for medieval Iranians.
It was therapy even when I did find someone. A few months ago, my partner and I were on a tetchy drive to a beach town six hours away for a short vacation. We’d fought the previous night, and both of us were exhausted, but not enough to actually take the first step toward resolving it. Close to the end of the mostly silent drive, my partner suggested listening to the latest episode of the Modern Love podcast. At the top of the playlist was the innocuously titled “In a Charmed Life, a Road Less Traveled” – it turned out to be a gut-puncher of a story by Layng Martine Jr., about how he and his wife learned to cope with her paraplegia after a car accident.
Around the middle of the narration, when she learns that she will never walk again, she says: “It was all too perfect, wasn’t it?” By this time, my partner and I were trying very hard to hide our tears from each other. At the end, we had to stop the car to take a proper weeping break. Our troubles hadn’t vanished, but they’d been put into perspective; it was an embarrassing reminder of the slightness of our own challenges. In the fights that were to follow, the story doesn’t always prevent me from losing my temper – but I do always come back to it, once the anger fades.
And so, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the eponymous Amazon Prime Original show, an eight-episode series which dramatises (with fictional flourishes), some well-loved Modern Love columns. It is executive produced and partly written and directed by John Carney, who made the perfectly endearing Once and Begin Again. Daniel Jones, the editor of the Modern Love column, is also the consulting producer. That this is a TV event, became even more evident with the publication of an updated anthology of columns last month.
But I needn’t have held my breath. Modern Love, the show, takes everything that accords the column series profundity, and flattens the hell out of it. And the schlocky opening credit soundtrack should be your first alarm bell.
The first episode “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” begins with a great opening sequence. It has Maggie, a bumbling nerdy pixie-girl as its main protagonist, who is also cute and white enough to not be a complete loser. She is, obviously, failing at finding love with a stream of feckless suitors. Its other main protagonist is Guzmin, the conservative Albanian doorman with a heart of gold, with whom she shares a deep, paternal friendship and who serves as her confidante – and screener – in her romantic pursuits.
Our troubles hadn’t vanished, but they’d been put into perspective; it was an embarrassing reminder of the slightness of our own challenges.
Despite the tremendous promise of the opening, as the episode drones on, you wonder if some things are best left in text. The original essay by Julie Margaret Hogben is a warm and fuzzy account of an unlikely relationship. On screen, however, it feels forced and patchy. Thanks to the uneven writing, the actors strain for the kind of chemistry and closeness the essay so effortlessly depicts. It’s easy to imagine the temptation the show’s writers must have felt to use this essay as the opening episode – it’s one of those classic “bade bade sheheron mein…” kinda set pieces. I just wish they’d spent more time exploring it and treated the essay as a diving board.
I skipped ahead to “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive”, the Tina Fey-John Slattery episode, based on one of my favourite Modern Love essays. Written by Ann Leary, the essay explores a couple’s attempts to save their marriage with a little bit of therapy, humour, and a backhand. Fey and Slattery try to make the best of their undercooked roles; they even serve up the most snort-worthy line in the entire series: In response to the therapist’s question about their hobbies, Slattery’s character says “cooking”, to which Fey snarks, “Fine, my hobby is using the toilet.” In the original essay, tennis is an important part of how the couple make their return to each other. On screen, tennis is merely what they do between therapy sessions.
Yes, I know it’s a typical “the book was better” situation. But here’s the thing – it is even worse when you don’t have the original to compare it with. The couple comes apart at a session, air their grievances at dinner afterward, and two minutes later… are somehow just ok with each other. Where do I sign up for this Rapidex school of epiphanies?
On the opposite side is the episode “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist”, which suffers from over explanation. The creator of a dating app and a former war photographer swap love stories over the course of an interview. Despite the nice-as-pie premise, there is a cringey turn at every step, where characters stiffly deliver nuggets of wisdom gleaned off of the page of a script. Even though you know this is a true story, it all somehow seems implausible.
Of course, not all of it is disagreeable. There is the perfectly watchable Anne Hathaway episode, “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am”, possibly the most stylish interpretation of mental illness I’ve seen on screen. Hathaway wafts across manic and depressive episodes, in and out of NYC supermarkets and restaurants and a gorgeous sunlit apartment. There is “At the Hospital, an Interlude of Clarity”, starring Sofia Boutella and John Gallagher Jr., which turns the meet-cute into a meet-farce (but still cute). It is peppered with enough insights and smarts and has a lovely aw-shucks quality as to resonate with any young person attempting to date in any city in the world.
For at its best, the Modern Love column offers us not just advice, but solace, a warm embrace and a little tonic for your soul.
And that’s what the show really is… a series of stories that would be more at home in a New York, I Love You kind of anthology, than a compendium that does justice to the richness of experiences on Modern Love. The city, like a charming but crazed boyfriend, is a constant character in the stories. But the screen interpretations leave you cold. They turn you into an unemotional observer to events happening to other people. By contrast the columns include and implicate you, the reader, in the struggles of the characters; you feel their crests and troughs on your skin. Their joys are participative, their triumphs are worth celebrating.
For at its best, the Modern Love column offers us not just advice, but solace, a warm embrace and a little tonic for your soul. It all came back full circle for me a few months ago, when I was in the middle of directing a podcast about relationships, based on true stories. Several of the writers we spoke to about their bonds with their parents or siblings or former lovers, stepped out of the studio, flopped down on the couch, let out a long sigh and said, “That felt like therapy.” I couldn’t hope for a better compliment.
Because when it comes to love, all of us aren’t just madmen and women. We are recidivists, convicted criminals with a tendency to reoffend over and over. And we could all do with a little bit of help and therapy. We could all do with an instruction manual.