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Amazon Modern Love series avoids cynicism or certainty

Anthology series based on The New York Times column stars Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey and other big names.

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Anne Hathaway and Gary Carr meet cute in a grocery store. 

Amazon Prime Video

There's a telling moment in Modern Love, the new anthology series from Amazon Prime Video. A journalist (Catherine Keener) asks a dating app founder (Dev Patel) if he's ever been in love. The question nearly bowls him over, and in the course of the 30-something-minute episode, the pair share grand stories of love gone awry in a way that suggests everybody has a story to tell about love -- lost or found -- if you just ask. 

It's fitting given that Modern Love is an adaption of The New York Times column of the same name, which began in 2004 and continues to this day. In the print version, readers submit neatly distilled first-person essays about the ways their lives and loves intersect with others, whether it's romantic, familial, friendly or just plain random.

The eight-episode season, out now, comes with a cast of recognizable names -- Tina Fey, Anne Hathaway, Catherine Keener, Dev Patel, Andrew Scott, John Slattery -- and is just the latest way the column has bounced into a new format. In January 2016, Modern Love ventured into the still trendy world of podcasts, enlisting celebrities to read the essays, and tacking on a short chat with the piece's writer catching up on what's happened since. It also gives editor Daniel Jones a chance to comment on why that particular essay merited publication. 

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Catherine Keener and Dev Patel chat about the love that's gotten away. 

Amazon Prime Video

On the whole, the Amazon series is earnest and charming if not occasionally twee. All the stories are set in a cleaner, more contained version of New York City that feels as if it were constructed specifically for people to be upper class and wistful. This is a show for people who love love. 

Most episodes stay fairly close to their original essay, taking liberties here and there. In "Rallying to keep the game alive," (directed by Catastrophe's Sharon Horgan), a couple in counseling played by Fey and Slattery struggle to like and even function with each other after years of marriage and two kids. In the Amazon adaptation, the couple's teenage son acts in a junior version of "Glengarry Glen Ross." That part isn't in the original essay, but the addition of some barely pubescent kid taking a drag on a fake cigarette and barking "coffee is for closers," is a funny moment in what is otherwise one of the season's less compelling episodes.  

Having different directors and writers, not all entries are even. Modern Love succeeds most in the episodes that best reflect the point of view of the person who wrote it. These essays are, by nature, intimate, and that's part of the attraction -- these are not stories that you share with strangers, but rather close friends, late at night, perhaps after beers. That's when you get into that story about the person-shaped hole in your heart or the random encounter that changed everything, if only for a few hours. Unless, of course, you're sharing it with the readership of The New York Times.

A prime example of this is the first installment, titled "When the doorman is your main man," about a young woman whose doorman critiques every guy she dates like a father, but also ends up supporting her like the best of non-judgmental, steady friends when she finds herself facing one of life's plot twists. The episode uses her point of view to frame the realization of just how valuable it is to have a presence like that in her life.

Of course, translating the perspective of a first-person essay has its challenges. The type of introspective narration a writer can get away with in print can end up clunky coming out of the mouth of a character. In "At the hospital, an interlude of clarity," a couple on a first date ends up in the ER after an unfortunate incident with a martini glass. Near strangers, they're thrown together in a fairly intense and personal situation. Despite that, she stays with him all night. In the essay, the author describes his battles with anxiety -- "it creeps in gradually and insidiously, like a thickening fog." For the show, his various metaphors about electrical storms and fog feel a bit overwrought, and the episode drags under dialogue that's trying to be poetic.

One odd blip in the series is a story about a 21-year-old woman who gets involved with a much older man where she works. Her father isn't in the picture, and when this older man invites her to his house for dinner, she's romanticizing his dad-liness while he's trying to lure her into his bed, literally. Their encounter with the imbalances of age and power certainly reads weird in the #MeToo era versus when the story was published in 2006 -- which shows how what's "modern" changes. 

In "Take me as I am, whoever I am," a woman with bipolar disorder (Hathaway) writes a dating profile explaining not only her condition, but how she's come to be open with the people in her life about it. Taking a cue from the CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the episode uses theatrical staging to illustrate the highs and lows of her episodes, which is interesting if not slightly confusing at first. Hathaway feels like the right choice to communicate the distance from dancing and sequins to the physical and mental depletion such dips can bring.

Whether it's a story about adoption, or finding love late in life, Modern Love tries to offer a wide scope of what love can look like. What saves it from being overly saccharine is that the stories are real, and not every one wraps up tidily. 

Have you ever been in love? Even if epic romances aren't a sure thing, human connections are everywhere. 

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Originally published Oct. 11.