It’s getting harder and harder to find romantic comedies in theaters these days. Comedies as a whole are dying as a genre, and Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu have been left to pick up the pieces, with Netflix especially successful at it with a seemingly nonstop string of popular rom-coms, like the teen-oriented The Kissing Booth,
This week, I’m taking a look at two different series about finding love in New York City: Love Life, a 10-part series which just debuted on the new HBO Max streaming platform, and Modern Love, which began streaming last fall on Amazon Prime Video but holds up as great viewing for both newcomers and repeat watchers.
First up, Love Life explores the story of a different single person each season, following their love life over 10 episodes from first kiss through finding their life partner. The first season follows Darby Parker (Anna Kendrick) from her 2012 start as an art museum tour guide in her late 20s to owning her own art gallery in 2019.
The series opens with her meeting a cool Politico writer named Augie Jeong (Jin Ha) at a party, where he invites her to join him in a karaoke duet. They have a sweet night together, but he takes days to send a follow-up text, and that drives the modern-minded millennial Darby into old-fashioned worrying, waiting and whining with her girlfriends.
After he does eventually text, the two fall seriously in love over a few months, but he finally has to end it when he gets assigned to ride the press bus covering President Obama throughout his reelection campaign. That first episode has a surprise twist in the final moment, but my lips are sealed.
The rest of the series jumps back and forth in time, in and out of relationships with a couple of other guys, while Augie re-enters the picture for four episodes before the finale, when a new guy finally wins her heart.
Love Life is lucky to have Kendrick at its center, because the Oscar-nominated actress (for Up in the Air) has always radiated immense charm. Jin Ha as Augie is the most important supporting character, a man with emotional depth whom viewers will root for along the complicated road to Darby’s destiny.
But the show as a whole is rather slight, claiming to be a romantic comedy but only producing occasional chuckles in each episode, rarely hitting a tone of sweeping romance. It all comes across rather blandly, which is surprising considering HBO’s tradition of groundbreaking TV that’s buzzworthy viewing.
Like Darby herself, the show looks cute and has a lot of surface charm, but as Gertrude Stein once said in another context, there’s no there there.
Modern Love is a far superior show, both terrific and touching as it brings to life eight stories from The New York Times’ popular column of the same name. The column explores real New Yorkers’ unique experiences with romance, spreading hope that true love can still exist in the age of hookup apps.
The Amazon Prime series was created by John Carney, the man behind a trio of the most romantic films of the 2000s: Once (2007), Begin Again (2014) and Sing Street (2016). Each episode is about 30 minutes long, with some featuring A-list stars like Tina Fey, Anne Hathaway and Andy Garcia. All told, four Oscar nominees (Jane Alexander, Dev Patel, Catherine Keener and Garcia) and one Oscar winner (Hathaway) are in the cast, a reflection of how top-notch the material is.
The best few episodes include the first, titled, “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man.” A young woman named Maggie (Cristin Millioti) has a doorman, Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa), who likes to criticize her choices in men. When she winds up unexpectedly pregnant, his loving concern for her welfare impacts the decision she must make in a surprisingly dramatic turn. The episode handles the dilemma of single motherhood with greater sensitivity than Love Life, making it one of the most special episodes I’ve seen in any series in a long time.
The third episode, “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am,” has Anne Hathaway lighting up the screen as a woman suffering from bipolar disorder, who breaks into song-and-dance numbers when she’s manic and lends heartbreaking realism to her down moments. The episode shines an important spotlight on a condition that affects far more people than we realize and shows that openness about it can be the answer to a consistently happier life.
Episode six is titled “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” This is the most surprising episode in the series, as a 20something woman named Maddy (played by Ozark Emmy-nominee Julia Garner) appears to be attracted to an older man at her office. But the relationship is not what he or anyone watching could possibly expect.
The seventh episode, “Hers Was a World of One,” follows a single mother (Olivia Cooke) who moves in with a gay male couple planning to adopt her baby when it arrives. This has some of the most surprising twists in the series and winds up with an absolutely wonderful speech from one of the men to the baby after it’s born. Just a terrific story.