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Modern Love - Season 2 - Review: Love in the Time of Corona

What is there to say about a show that offers so much and yet so little? Modern Love season 2 is a journey; providing intense nuance and extraordinary shallowness. It is both remarkably on-the-ball and occasionally surprisingly tone deaf - all in the same 8 episodes and sometimes all in the same half-hour.

Here’s the thing, and I’ll preface this beforehand: this review is going to be as mixed as they come. Modern Love season 1 was a flawed but highly underrated anthology that focused on love and hope and joy when many TV shows find their niche in the realm of melancholy. It certainly wasn’t the most affecting reflection on the ups and downs of humanity, and some episodes (“In the Hospital, an Interlude of Clarity”) hit much harder than others (“So He Looked Like Dad...”). But it knew its audience. The New York Times label slapped on the front cover promised a hip, stylistic, pseudo-intellectual fluff piece set against the backdrop of the ugliest most beautiful city in the world. And that’s what season 1 was: a sweet-as-sugar, Big Apple-worshipping, remarkably harmless serotonin delivery service. It was good.

And so is season 2, mostly, but in different ways.

The sophomore outing, I think, improves somewhat on the freshman. Much of the “vibe” remains the same, even as details of production and storytelling change wildly. Those changes - a shift in focus from a broad definition of “love” to just stories about romantic encounters, for one - give the show direction and definition where the first season had little. But many of the fascinating complexities that the first season sought to address (and the way the vrious stories were shown to thematically intertwine) are lost this season, replaced by much more basic appeals to pathos.

Also new: only about half of the episodes in this season actually have the New York setting, with the rest taking place either in a generic “Suburbia, U.S.A.” or an even more generic “somewhere in the U.K.” The quaintness of these new settings provides the show with a change of scene, but if the goal was to go for a more global look at the foibles of love, someone should inform the writers that more than two countries exist.

The cast of this season is also less big-name (save for a few heavy-hitters like Minnie Driver and Anna Paquin) but still populated by remarkable talents, from the tried and true to the up-and-coming. Despite what you might think, though, this is not an "acting" show: each episode’s ability to deliver doesn’t lie in any one performance. The bad episodes have good performances and the good episodes have great ones, but the episodes are still bad and good nonetheless.

The headache-inducing sweetness of the first season is gone too, with a majority of episodes being left on tragic or open-ended notes (“Strangers on a Train” comes to mind). This works in the show’s favor to improve on the show's sense of groundedness, a sore point of season one. Other than that, however, this strategy's success level depends entirely on individual taste. Now, each episode ends less like a 2000’s romcom and more like a charming indie with a 3 ½-star average on Letterboxd - not everyone will appreciate that change, but I did.

As I've said, the episode lineup was a mixed bag of good, great, mediocre and skull-crushingly boring. Firstly, however, to highlight the good: “Am I...? Maybe This Quiz Game Will Tell Me” follows a teenage girl (Lulu Wilson) discovering her sexuality through her first crush on a female classmate - and a plethora of BuzzFeed personality quizzes. The filmmaking of this episode is very "indie," marking the starkest departure from the Modern Love form - and leading to a heartwarming, Eighth Grade-esque adventure in the media-steeped social life of the members of Gen Z. “The Night Girl Meets a Day Boy” is tediously plotted but by far the most visually appealing episode, and “Strangers on a (Dublin) Train” boasts an actually tolerable COVID-centric storyline, an accomplishment in itself.

However, its ”A Life Plan For Two, Followed By One” that has been the episode that stuck with me, and the one I find myself most eager to go back to. Following a future comedienne who pre-plots out every element of her life (including an eventual fairy-tale romance with her longtime best friend), this episode is a moody, enthralling ride. The outing, like its bretheren, lasts only 35 minutes, but does so much more in that space than any other episode of the show - period. Dominique Fishback, as the constantly-friendzoned Lil, is the season’s standout performance, with her empathetic, hilarious, passionate performance rating high above the caliber of both her co-stars and - dare I say it - the project itself.

But for all those relative hits, there were a fair share of misses in this season as well. “In the Waiting Room of Estranged Spouses” droned on and on, without offering the one basic necessity to make its "meet-ugly" plotline work: a reason to care. “How Do You Remember Me?” tries its hardest to be the drama of the year, but instead borderlines on SNL parody at times, as two men slowly walk towards each other, eyeing each other across the street and each remembering a single failed night of passion they had together. All of this wistful romantic tension builds up until the two finally... pass by one another with knowing smiles. This episode in particular oozes a special sense of pretentiousness, as if it thought was the first time a story about a missed connection had ever been put to paper (it is not).

Many other episodes had moments that weren’t fully realized properly, which detracted from their value significantly. “Dublin Train's” misplaced musical number - truly a diegetic nightmare - comes to mind. These dissonant moments, I feel, are probably the #1 reason I’m not-so sold on this second season as a whole. While it's certainly not indicative of a distinct sophomore slump, there were definitely some significant sophomore potholes along the road.

Modern Love isn’t a gritty or highly realistic show, but it is a beautiful one, full of high-class performances and gorgeous scenery. Yes, it’s sometimes forgettable, but is mostly reliable as feel-good escapist fodder. It's intentions are pure and its aesthetics, rich beyond means and Pinterest-y beyond necessity, is perfectly tailored for the early internet/Buzzfeed generation.

I think it’s safe to say that we are in an era where we’re all seeking for a reprieve of some kind. I keep going back and forth as to whether I can say that Modern Love actually provides “what we need” right now. On the one hand, there is so much evil, destruction, and pure crazy in this world swirling around us and making everything unsure, that the glucose-soaked purity of the show’s message feels false, like a mirage in a desert.

But on the other hand, Modern Love is, at its core, a hopeful show, and when Pandora opened her box the world was filled with unspeakable evil, the only thing left for any of us to hold onto was hope.

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