In the first episode of the likable new anthology series “Modern Love,” Cristin Milioti plays Maggie, a single New Yorker whose apartment doorman acts like a guard. When she arrives home with dates, the stiffly uniformed Guzmin — played with a masterfully cryptic deadpan by Laurentiu Possa — stands like a sentry at the building entrance, his disapproval clear. His protectiveness appears threatening, like he’s a mobster. We never see Maggie’s parents, as the half-hour called “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” unfolds amid the city grid; just Guzmin, his severe cap, and his portentous face.
I love it that the Amazon series, available Friday, starts off with a tale that’s not about conventional romance. While the eight half-hours of “Modern Love” have the sparkling feel of urban romantic comedy, they’re about the very many faces of love out there in the world — between lovers, yes, but also between friends, between people tossed together by circumstance, between a birth mother and the gay couple adopting her baby. “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” shows, with wry warmth, how you can find fierce devotion and shelter in unexpected corners of a cold, bustling city of strangers. You can’t always predict who is going to fill a familial role in your life, and in your heart.
The adaptation of the New York Times column of the same name was created by Irish writer-director John Carney of “Once” and “Sing Street,” and he brings just the right touch to almost every episode (he wrote and directed most; the other writers and directors include Sharon Horgan, Emmy Rossum, and Dan Savage). OK, so there’s a bit of corniness here and there; the charm of the whole project makes its excesses tolerable, as does the swiftness of the storytelling. Carney & Co. consistently keep the focus on the protagonist’s point of view, without elaborate side detours or embellishment, just like in the newspaper columns. Each half-hour knows exactly what it’s about and goes there elegantly. You could say that the show is the “Twilight Zone” of love, without all the science fiction, oppressive doom, and broken watches, of course. It’s a collection of small stories that share a broad theme, as well as a city that only seems to hinder love.
There were two episodes that didn’t take off for me, for one reason or another. Much as I enjoyed watching Tina Fey and John Slattery as a couple on the verge of splitting, the static episode, called “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” relies too heavily on the tennis metaphor that, in the original newspaper piece by Ann Leary, wife of Denis Leary, works well. And an episode in which a young woman (Julia Garner) seeks approval — but not romance — from a much-older man, fails, to a cringing effect, to make its meaning clear. That’s the nature of anthology shows; they are usually uneven, and you get to start afresh with each new chapter. And unlike Amazon’s “The Romanoffs,” Matthew Weiner’s extremely uneven anthology of hour-long-plus episodes, the misses pass by briskly.
The only truly edgy episode is called “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am,” and it stars Anne Hathaway as a bipolar woman named Lexi who has kept her diagnosis to herself. We see her dancing and singing glamorously in choreographed scenes set in the supermarket, as she rides a manic phase. And then we see her unable to get out of bed, lying her way through absences at work, profoundly depressed. Can Lexi ever find love? Will she explain to the man she just met the reason for her erratic behavior? I found the episode absorbing and moving, as a woman braving her illness alone reaches her breaking point. I also liked a far lower-stakes episode starring Dev Patel as a tech wiz and Catherine Keener as the magazine interviewer who schools him on lost love and regret.
By now it’s probably clear that “Modern Love” is not for viewers who can’t suspend their cynicism for a few hours. There is plenty of earnestness afoot, even when it’s lurking just under the surface, and there are a few happy endings, too. For me, it felt like a holiday from all the more demanding narratives on TV right now, a pleasing distraction from brooding superheroes, toxic media moguls, and an endless number of crimes that always need solving.
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Cristin Milioti, Tina Fey, Dev Patel, Julia Garner, John Slattery, Andrew Scott, Andy Garcia, Shea Whigham, Laurentiu Possa, Catherine Keener
On: Amazon, first season available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at [email protected]om. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.