Real love stories don’t happen on the rollercoaster of Freytag’s Pyramid. They’re not a fell swoop of rising action and climax. They’re not singular, and they don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Maybe that’s the reason movies and novels have so often failed to depict love in a way that’s undramatic, quotidian, and real. Maybe that’s the reason Candace Bushnell’s 1994 New York Observer column was able to capture the essence of love and relationships (and, of course, sex) so well.
The newspaper column is the perfect medium for storytelling because of its focus on unapologetic, often awkward, but usually universal truths. And Sex and the City was bursting with those truths. Bushnell’s first column, a commentary on a couple’s-only sex club called La Trapeze, ended with the pithy generalisation: “When it comes to sex, there’s no place like home.” In a world where romance narratives were full of fairytale tropes, her writing was exceptionally, if disconcertingly, blunt.
Bushnell’s storytelling prowess often relies on simply stating the obvious. But her gift is that “the obvious” isn’t obvious until she states it. Through her work, the newspaper column became a vocalization of all the glaring-but-unspoken realities of finding love. And that process of finding love happened slowly, episodically, and without a clear trajectory towards success. These stories resonated with people because they weren’t manipulated toward an idea of plot; they were just reflections of the everyday.
Bushnell’s ability to turn conventional storytelling on its head is perhaps most evident in her first ever Sex and the City column. Her introduction to the Trapeze shenanigans is coy: “It all started the way it always does: innocently enough.” The first three words are cliche enough — any love stories will tell you how “it all started.” Bushnell begins to break paradigm with her subsequent clause: “the way it always does.” The auditory parallel between “it all” and “it always” becomes emblematic of her departure from conventional storytelling. Other love stories attempt to encompass “the all,” the everything, the soulmate fantasy from beginning to happily ever after. Bushnell’s story isn’t about “the all.” It’s about “the always,” the everyday, the continual trying and failing and trying again of seeking romance. The returning to uneventful lunches of crackers and sardines in her apartment, which is, by the way where she is when the column begins. And the only way we can ever approach “the all” is through experiencing “the always.”
Bushnell’s writing thrives on that distinction. The one between all and always, between fantasy and reality, between complete love story and awkward episodic dating attempts. She leads us into an exotic and edenic description of her imaginings of La Trapeze. Patrons have perfect hair and teeth and are all dressed in grape-leaf loincloths — but she quickly pulls us out of the fantasy because the reality of La Trapeze was far less glamorous. It was a reality of hot-and-cold buffets, a manager who looked like he worked at a Pets ‘R’ Us store and a big air mattress populated by “blobby” couples. Bushnell is constantly tearing down our conceptions of fantasy and romance. She’s constantly uncovering illusions about dating and replacing them with their real-life counterparts. Those insights are really only possible within the genre of newspaper column — a genre which is nonfictional and yet narrative. A genre that doesn’t face the pressure of happy endings or resolved resolutions. A genre that actually derives its power from the ability to crack our rose-colored spectacles.
The Sex and the City TV series broke boundaries because it brought that power onto the screen. It didn’t succumb to love-story tropes or cliche plot lines, like so many other TV shows were doing at the time. It was successful because it maintained Bushnell’s unique brand of newspaper column storytelling: The quick-witted episodic structure of her newspaper column easily lent itself to the 22 minute episode. Most important, it didn’t shy away from the real-life struggles of the real-life love story. The series proved that the paradigm-breaking real life love narrative could truly translate from newspaper column to screen, so long as it stayed honest.
If Bushnell’s radical ‘90s sex column was a beacon of speaking the unspoken truths, then the New York Times Modern Love column has picked up her torch. Modern Love, which started in 2004 and is edited by Daniel Jones, is about redefining what a love story is. Just as Bushnell gave a voice to the never-married 30-something woman, Modern Love is committed to uncovering unheard voices and sharing the awkward, inconvenient, but somehow still magical reality behind finding love. It’s the next iteration in Bushnell’s tradition of the newspaper column love story.
Modern Love explores love through individual and cultural storytelling. What does “love” still mean in an age of shifting gender identities, rising divorce rates, dating apps. and hookup culture? The stories it shares are poignant and funny, but best of all, they’re just honest. They’re not trying to fit into a narrative of what a “love story” should be. More often than not, they’re actually tearing down that narrative.
In one famous column, “A Millennial’s Guide to Kissing,” Emma Court shares her story of kissing a stranger on a transcontinental plane flight. She paints a picture of what we all assume real romance should look like: spontaneous, dramatic, somehow fated. The airplane seat-assigning gods had willed this handsome stranger into her life. Although the romance only blossomed on an eight-hour flight, readers feel the sense that this relationship important, that it’s “meant to be.” For a while, that’s the direction Court’s column seems to take. She and the boy stay in touch, messaging and joking around. But they live in different places. An eight-hour fight is not a foundation for a long-distance relationship. The timing never works out, and the relationship never materializes. The story led us on a rollercoaster of rising action that usually leads to a happy ending — but here, it doesn’t. Instead, it leads to a nothing ending, like so many real almost-relationships do. That’s why this column is important. Just like Bushnell’s column, it shows us that we can’t map real love stories onto fictional plot pyramids.
Amazon’s television adaptation of Modern Love is set to premiere this fall. As we step into the Golden Age of television, it’s not surprising that executives are looking for new ideas to develop and drawing inspiration from the newspaper column once again. TV is better now than it’s ever been, and telling more interesting and diverse stories than it ever has before. That’s why there’s so much potential for Modern Love to take the truth and honesty we see in the column and bring it to a much wider audience. After all, the Sex and the City TV show was able to do this masterfully in 1998.
However, it’s also easy to have reservations about Modern Love. Will the show be able to transport the power of its source column onto screen? Or will it distort its stories into conventional Hollywood narratives? The newspaper column love story, with its emphasis on awkwardness and reality, is the complete opposite of the Hollywood love story, which rests its hat on cliched fantasy. Modern Love perfectly balances honest romance with sharp comedy, but it’s nothing like Hollywood’s played-out rom-com genre. The Modern Love TV show needs to avoid rom-com tropes at all costs if it’s going to maintain the newspaper column’s capacity for honest storytelling. And it can start by taking cues from the original newspaper-column-turned-TV-show, Sex and the City.
Modern Love needs to embrace the awkward, the unsayable and the inconvenient. It can’t shy away from unhappy endings. And it can’t be afraid to draw crayon all over the traditional dramatic arc. Because that’s what real love does.
In a sense, this is asking a lot from a mainstream TV show. Rom-com tropes are easy. They have a confirmed success rate, they’re inherently “watchable,” and they don’t ask their audience to think too much. Creating a truly faithful adaptation from a newspaper column is a risk. The stories are unconventional and likely to make viewers uncomfortable. What happens when we have to acknowledge that not everyone finds love? That even when there is love, relationships don’t work out? Will TV still be successful when it’s confronting us with the realities of life, rather than offering escapism?
Still, perhaps the greatest value of the series is that it will bring a greater readership to the column. While real love stories have been told on screen before, in few places have they been told more beautifully or accurately than in the genre of newspaper column. The column is a place where weekly words and developments can change everything, or change nothing. Where there’s no beginning and no ending, no credits or title sequence. Where there’s just the everyday. And, despite being in newsprint, where words and deeds are anything but black and white.