Roger Ebert called film an “empathy machine.” He thought sitting down to watch something was a chance to “live somebody else’s life for a while.” He went on: “I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.”
Modern Love, John Carney’s adaptation of various installments of the New York Times column of the same name, is not a film. By today’s TV standards, where showrunners like to trumpet that some season of television is “really more like a 13-hour movie,” Modern Love is even less so—its eight chapters are all around 30 minutes long, and with the exception of a very dopey coda, they are almost wholly unconnected. But the best episode of the bunch, the Anne Hathaway-starring “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am,” is a perfect example of Ebert’s idea of the empathy machine. It’s one of several recent television shows that has the central character’s psychology as its lens, looking at the world, allowing their mental health, coping mechanisms, or emotional landscape in general to dictate the way the story is told.
It’s not the only good outing from the series—the opening installment, “When the Doorman Is your Main Man,” also centers the protagonists’ emotional experience, though in a much more conventional way, and there are other highlights. But “Take Me As I Am” makes that inner life and inextricable element of the storytelling. It’s not just the meat of the story. It makes up the structural framework and visual language alike. It forms the nuts and bolts that hold the storytelling together.
For those who haven’t seen the episode, the best suggestion I can offer is that you go watch it, tout suite. (Seriously, it’s half an hour and a total delight!) But for those who can’t or who might need a quick refresher, here’s the deal: “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am” introduces us to Lexi (Hathaway), who sits in her apartment, giddily writing a dating profile. It challenges her to sum up who she is, and her explanation is a lengthy one. Episode-length, in fact. She tells us that she is a person who once went to a grocery store craving peaches, and left with a date (Gary Carr), a man who was dazzled—as is the audience—by her effusiveness, brilliant smile, irresistible energy, and the gold-sequined shirt she has on. Coworker Sylvia (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is similarly dazzled, though not in a romantic way. But she’s also concerned, telling Lexi that frequently missing work isn’t an option, and that’s when Lexi introduces us to the less dazzling parts of her life. This isn’t a person who just has the occasional romantic grocery store adventure. This is a person living with bipolar disorder, whose towering highs are mirrored by her dark, and lengthy, lows.
Remove Lexi’s bipolar disorder from the structure—not the story itself, just the structure—and you wind up with something totally different and presumably a great deal less empathetic. Carney, who directs this installment as well as adapting it (from Terri Cheney’s original column) finds his approach in the perspective of his protagonist. When she’s up—when she’s Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, sparkling and incomprehensible and on top of the world—she’s irresistible, if confusing. When she’s down, she doesn’t exist, and that’s how the camera works, too. The colors change—sparkling beauty for neutrals and gray. The tempo changes—we’re tied to the pulse of our protagonist, which rises and rises and rises, then falls, and falls hard. There’s an actual song and dance number; there’s a title sequence for an imagined Lexi-centric, Mary Tyler Moore-esque TV show which features numerous cameos by Judd Hirsch.
We don’t see this clinically. We see it as she feels it.
We move through her origin story, if you will, in a scene that places the young Lexi (Savvy Crawford) in a big black-box theater, marching forward wearily from set piece to set piece in her life. We hear about shock therapy, medication, about cycling between weeks in bed and sleepless, giddy periods of staggering productivity. When, back in the present, she’s in a depressive phase, the camera becomes a somewhat more objective observer, but not entirely. The darks seem darker. The score becomes weighty, and the camera moves at a sluggish pace. Time seems to slow. Then one morning she wakes up, throws wide the curtains, and life is beautiful—magnificent, astonishing, glorious!—again.
Carney’s approach allows the camera to remain trained on Lexi while still using her gaze as its lens. He’s not the first to use that kind of simultaneous first-person and third-person perspective, and this episode of Modern Love is one of several pieces of excellent television to use the interiority of its central character as both subject and structure. The CW’s excellent Crazy Ex-Girlfriend made its genre (musical theater) the coping mechanism of its protagonist; for the most part, when the time came to burst into song, it was a fantasy imagined by Rebecca Bunch (series co-creator Rachel Bloom). That was not only true when Rebecca was singing. She imagined the perspectives of the other characters as well, as with the season-one standout “Settle For Me.”
The acclaimed Fleabag uses a similar approach, but with very different mechanics. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes its genre a part of the character’s psychology and takes the camera inside her mind. Fleabag makes the camera a confidant, someone the titular central character (creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) can chat with when there’s no one else. Through the course of the show’s wonderful first season, we learn why we, as Fleabag’s only friend, we’re necessary—she’s suffered a terrible loss. But in one of that season’s final scenes, we learn how that loss came about, something she’s neglected to tell us, and because we don’t really exist, that really means it’s something she’s been hiding from herself. Take Fleabag’s asides to the camera away and you lose not just insight into the character, but the map of her grief, denial, and guilt. That relationship gets even more interesting in the second season, when we become a kind of confessor—and when we’re not allowed in, we’re asked to question what that means for Fleabag herself.
There are other examples, in film, theater, and television—Russian Doll makes the character’s relationship to mortality both the format and the story of the show, to cite one recent example—and “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am” is a worthy addition to that canon. Not every story should employ such a technique, but the reasons for its use are some that all artists should consider. To know what a character is thinking or feeling, one need not rely solely on an expressive actor, an exposition dump, or a voiceover. And when that character has struggles or challenges with regard to her mental health, the options go well beyond playing the disorder. It’s a question of empathy, of finding a way to place the audience within the character’s life. It’s not just what they do, what they have, and how they feel. It’s how they encounter the world.
By allowing the subject of the story to help color how it’s told, writers and directors can better build their empathy machines. They’ll make smarter, stranger, more evocative art, and they’ll make it that much easier for the audience to step into their protagonists’ shoes, if only for a few moments. “Take Me As I Am” doesn’t content itself with letting Hathaway play a person with bipolar disorder. It makes sure the camera lives in the same place, and in doing so, it places the audience there, too.
Allison Shoemaker is a TV and film critic whose work has appeared in The A.V. Club, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, and other publications. She is also the co-host of the podcasts Hall Of Faces and Podlander Drunkcast: An Outlander Podcast, the latter of which is exactly what it sounds like.