TV used to savor anthologies.
There were high-profile, high-prestige ones — “Studio One” and “Playhouse 90” and more. They drew praise and awards; some episodes (“12 Angry Men,” “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” “Days of Wine and Roses”) became acclaimed movies.
Then anthologies faded away … for a while.
Now one streamer, Amazon Prime, has been nudging them back. Last year, it had the steeply ambitious “Romanoffs”; that’s been cancelled, but on Friday (Oct. 18) is the splendid “Modern Love” (shown here with Anne Hathaway).
These eight stories have only a few things in common: Each was filmed in New York, runs about 30 minutes and is based on a non-fiction essay in the New York Times. Each has the natural advantage of an anthology – telling a full story in one gulp. Each is interesting; some are amazingly good.
Beyond that, the stories differ wildly. When he started the Times’ “Modern Love” column 15 years ago, Daniel Jones said, he “made a conscious decision to make it about more than (only) romantic love.”
So these episodes range afar. The stars go from Olivia Cooke and Julia Garner (both 25 years old) to Jane Alexander (turning 80 on Oct. 28). In some episodes, romance fails … in some it succeeds … and some aren’t about romance anyway. One is the relationship between a man and his adopted baby; another is about a young woman and her doorman.
Even the approaches of the actors varied widely.
Cristin Milioti, who stars in the opener (the doorman one), said she wanted to focus only on the script. “I never spoke to the original author” of the essay.
Hathaway took the opposite approach. Her episode is based on an essay by Terri Cheney, once a top entertainment lawyer and later the author of “Manic: A Memoir” and two other books.
“She‘s very open about her journey with bipolar disorder,” Hathaway said. “I spoke with her on the phone at great length …. She really illustrated to me how weighted down she would feel during a depressive episode – how objects would become almost impossible to lift.”
Both approaches work well. Milioti and Hathaway give performances that are richly layered. So do several others, especially Julia Garner (as someone who really wants a dad, not a boyfriend) and two people in the second-to-last episode — Cooke as a backpacking wanderer who is pregnant …. and Andrew Scott as the guy who reluctantly (at first) goes along with his husband’s adoption plan.
Each viewer will have a different set of favorites. Mine are the first episode (Milioti’s), the third (Hathaway’s) and the final two. The seventh is terrific, with Cooke, Scott and even an odd little guest role by pop star Ed Sheeran. And the eighth (Alexander’s) has a neat bonus – a closing flurry of flashbacks and flashforwards that tell us more about some of the previous stories.
But each story has its merits. The fourth has wonderfully funny dialog between Tina Fey and John Slattery; the fifth makes us feel for both an ordinary chap and the way-too-beautiful woman he meets.
And this is just the first season, Jones said. “We have about 750 story possibilities …. The hope of all of us is that it’s inexhaustible.”