My seeing the appearance of Modern Love on Amazon over the weekend felt a bit like the shark seeing chum or an injured surfer from the depths of the ocean. And like the shark I barreled toward the delectable feast in a gratuitous spiral motion confident in every detail of what I was about to sink my teeth into and all the satisfactions I would gain from it. But the closer I made my way to it, and even as I was consuming it, the feast had reconstituted itself as something less savory and of uncertain nutritional merit, like whale vomit or a tree trunk. Being all the more shark-like, though, I did not refuse it, I let it swirl around inside me, and its symptoms took hold in short order.
Modern Love is a show I wanted to hate from the first moment I heard about it. The show’s very concept filled me with ideas about how I could hate it and how I would be sustained in that hatred while at the same time leaving so little to the imagination. In fact it was pretty straightforward. In a cultural ecosystem filled with intimacy-centric “millennial realist” shows like Love, Easy, and High Maintenance and revisionist rom-coms like Band Aid, Drinking Buddies, and Plus One, Modern Love seemed to set itself up for swift and efficient failure. It had all of the elements of these shows and films but dowsed them in the buttercream frosting of typical New York Times abstraction.
Reading “Modern Love” in the Times always carried the whiff of very cerebral pornography, smut equivalent to those decorative shell-shaped soaps you find in suburban bathrooms. It infused all the common foibles of dating, romance, cohabitation, marriage, etc. with post hoc insights on the one hand, where everything you wish you had said or thought is expressed with angelic eloquence, and forcibly “quirky” framings on the other, the improbable coital encounter with a cable guy becomes the improbably paternalistic relationship with an Albanian doorman. In short, it defies good production sense to adapt a TV show from feuilletons of the professional class. I was very excited to watch this show go down in flames. Then I actually watched it.
Modern Love deserves criticism for all the aforementioned reasons. A single episode of Netflix’s Easy will quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that Modern Love has any justification to exist as art. The Chicago-based show has its faults, its raunchiness doesn’t always have a point beyond its being allowed to flaunt it, but there’s a very lived-in feel for its characters and for the existences they try to navigate. Modern Love in its heart of hearts is a didactic show designed to dispense canned wisdom. Easy, such as when it depicts its multi-season arc of a couple indulging in then struggling through an open marriage, does not aim for wisdom but for narrative: awkward, nuanced, and open-ended story. It is moreover incredibly diverse in social status, in race, in generation, in sexual orientation, in life outlook, in priorities but makes no strong point about it. As a result, no episode or arc is the same and is not guided by any higher philosophy than giving the fullest picture of this or that person’s or people’s predicament. Modern Love has visual diversity but not diversity in spirit. It has a worldview in which every character — articulate, attractive, upwardly mobile or fully successful, cosmopolitan — is implicated and which in turn wants to implicate its viewers. That is how Modern Love hooked me and made all of its evident detriments an easily dispensed-with secondary matter.
Hatewatching is a lot like dating: exciting and fraught at the same time. The greater the expectations going into it the more disappointment you are bound to face. You think you’ve found the one after a succession of failures, but somewhere in the process reality sets in. Your anxiety created delusions which were set free to fool you before abandoning you to a solitary humiliation. Yet such a humiliation is not so simple as liking something you completely expected and wanted to hate.
The key to hatewatching is the pleasure of watching something which is inferior to you. Though you yourself may have created exactly nothing, something about this or that show imbues you with a confidence that you would never have created something so bad if given the opportunity. Moreover, it confirms security of conscience: you are nothing like the people who like the show in earnest. They are beneath you. Your life is in a good place — morally and spiritually if not materially — unlike those plebs, losers, and bougies. The experience is never so harshly demystified as when something you hate remains hated but for reasons you did not anticipate let alone wish to exist at all. Rather than letting you sprout wings and rise above it, the still-hated show insists on chaining you down at its level.
Even as I knew in my marrow what was wrong with Modern Love, I could not find anything absurd in what it set out to accomplish. There was nothing — or at least very little — at which I could direct my disgust with absolute assurance. I could not derive mockery of, muster rancor for, or bathe in acid any one aspect and still feel like my time was used wisely. Does Modern Love present a narrow, sanitized, vaguely conformist view of New York City? It does. Is the New York Times reader the most overvalued demographic to appeal to? It goes pretty much without saying. All the same, the show made sense and spoke to a strange, unacknowledged, but maybe not entirely concealed impulse within myself. Modern Love says nothing that I hadn’t known before, in other words; finding love is hard, dating can be tedious and throw curveballs at you constantly and in ingenious ways, marriages require ongoing maintenance, and so on. Most of these conclusions were not arrived at by common sense, and I did not appreciate having them reflected back at me.
A significant trait of Modern Love is that while the scenarios themselves are quirky — in addition to the Albanian doorman, there is the woman who dates a dad lookalike, a gay couple who take in a pregnant homeless woman to adopt her baby, and Manic Depression: the musical! — the characters that exist in them are anything but. HBO’s High Maintenance depicts the New York City outer boroughs as being filled with eccentrics and outcasts, though not overly exaggerated ones, making for a colorful but not unrealistic depiction of the city. The characters on Modern Love, by contrast, are imperfect but not otherwise distinct. They’re not far removed from the people you see reading or holding hands in prescription drug commercials. I would add this to the above crimes but something about this normality feels intentional and encouraged.
Eccentricity is a blessing and a curse. Those attached to it seldom attach on their own but tend to roll with it as best they can if reminded enough, often to the point that most burdens of normalcy don’t feel like they apply to them. Modern Love feels like it is directed at these people, coaxing them away from this view of themselves as unique and exceptional. That view is but a shell, which through its careful, considerate, and sentimental visions breaks the shell entirely, revealing the authentic conventional person long hiding within.
What is stranger than being normal? And what causes weird people to hold it back? Laziness? Fear? A Strindbergian marriage of both? There was something compelling about this. Watching Modern Love, truth, excellence, and freedom receded into grey triviality leaving only survival, comfort, and the desire to survive comfortably with someone else. Even something like mental illness seemed commonplace. Aren’t we all, on some level, taking Klonopin? the show seems to ask us. As one episode drifted into another these assertions rang truer. Though I don’t look or feel anything like the people depicted, they did not repulse me. I felt close kinship with them and their world. This suggests that I was being lulled into some kind of trance, as if I and others were these earth-toned Manchurian candidates; but it may have been that this was what I and others always longed for: to belong, to love and be loved as best as we are able, to brunch eternally in a Lena Dunham afterworld.
Eventually these thoughts left me and something approaching familiarity returned. The knack for outré theories reasserted itself. Clearly Modern Love is a high-concept episode of Black Mirror, depicting what incels are shown just before they are euthanized for the greater good, etc., etc. The triumph of the return felt hollow, though. The vulnerability still lingered, as did the disbelief that I allowed its exposure. This left me with an unusual urge to work through that vulnerability. So I closed the tab on Prime and opened Google to survey my therapy options.