Corporations are not to be trusted, and high-tech companies even less so. Television has often seized upon this idea in recent years, on shows like Devs, Westworld, Mr. Robot, Homecoming, and Black Mirror, among others, with each project underlining how efforts to allegedly enhance our lives often wind up eating away at our humanity and decency. Made for Love — a new HBO Max series starring Cristin Milioti as a woman attempting to escape her Über-controlling tech-billionaire husband — is the latest member of this club. Based on the novel by Alissa Nutting, who co-created the series alongside Dean Bakopoulos, Patrick Somerville, and showrunner Christina Lee, it’s part dark comedy, part sci-fi thriller, and a little challenging to engage with, at least initially.
The show opens with a burst, specifically Milioti’s Hazel bursting out of a trapdoor in the middle of the desert. Emerging from an underground tunnel filled with water, Hazel is soaking wet and dressed in a shimmery, emerald-green cocktail dress. When she pulls herself out onto dry land, she seems relieved. Then she spots an imposing white building in the distance and gives it an extremely aggressive middle finger.
If this beginning feels a little familiar, that’s because it is. Netflix’s Living With Yourself, about a man who goes for a VIP treatment at a wellness spa and winds up cloning himself, starts in similar fashion with its protagonist, Miles, played by Paul Rudd, popping out of the dirt in a remote area. Sure, he’s also encased in cellophane and in the middle of the woods instead of a desert, but same idea.
The HBO Max series does something else familiar right away, too. Instead of letting us settle in with Hazel and her obviously unusual predicament, it immediately flashes back to 24 hours earlier, prior to Hazel’s apparent escape. Living With Yourself also does this. In fact, as critic Alan Sepinwall recently noted in Rolling Stone, a lot of shows have been adopting this technique lately: opening in medias res, then quickly doing a time jump to start filling in the blanks. A pitfall with this approach, aside from its ubiquity, is that it tends to imply that plot will take priority over character development; the “what” immediately seems more important than the “who.”
Early on, Made for Love seems to have fallen into that trap. While it’s understandable that a high-concept show like this has to devote some time to explaining its universe, the series is focused more on Hazel’s next moves and retracing her previous ones in a way that makes it challenging to get fully invested in her plight. As the episodes progress — four out of the season’s eight total were provided to critics — and more is revealed about Hazel’s background, the series starts to find itself a bit more. By the end of the fourth half-hour, you will likely be hooked enough to see the season through to the end. (The first three episodes drop April 1 on HBO Max, with three more to follow on April 8 and the final two on April 15.)
Via that first flashback, we learn that Hazel has been leading a life of luxurious leisure alongside her rich, handsome husband, tech visionary Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), a man happy to pleasure her both sexually and materially with all the trappings wealth provides. There is, however, a catch. Several catches, actually. For a decade, Byron has kept Hazel trapped in their home, which is housed within the Gogol Tech campus known as the Hub. Byron is obsessed with his latest venture, Made for Love, which allows couples to implant Gogol-manufactured chips into their heads that sync their brains, thereby enabling every individual thought and experience to be shared. Considering that most people don’t even like to share their browser histories with their significant others, wow, what a great idea!
Byron has decided that he and Hazel will be “users one,” which means Hazel may soon become her husband’s mental and emotional hostage on top of being his physical one. That’s why she runs, with Byron and his various skeptical but obedient aides — played by Dan Bakkedahl, Noma Dumezweni (The Undoing), and Caleb Foote — keeping close tabs on her location, which is easy to do since the Made for Love chip has already been lodged into her cranium without her consent. In need of a home base, Hazel heads to the extremely modest trailer where her widower father, Herbert (Ray Romano), lives with his synthetic partner (read: sex doll), Diane. The unconventional pairing of Herb and Diane, which Herb cherishes even though it has made him a laughingstock, is Made for Love’s sly way of saying there are other ways to share the same brain in a relationship.
Lots of odd details like these add color to this parallel version of our tech-dominated universe, including a dolphin that casually swims in Byron’s pool and technology that tracks Hazel so closely it interrupts her video-game play so she can evaluate her most recent orgasm on a point scale ranging from zero to 20. But the performances keep Made for Love anchored in reality. Thanks to her previous roles in the Black Mirror episode “U.S.S. Callister” and last year’s time-loopy Palm Springs, Milioti has proven experience playing gutsy women dealing with outlandish circumstances, and she puts it to good use here. She’s a natural at expressing the comedy, tragedy, and urgency in every situation Hazel encounters. In one scene, Hazel puts a fast-food bag over her head so Byron won’t be able to see or hear where she and her dad are planning to go. The way Milioti droops in frustration, then straightens when Herbert points out that there’s probably GPS capacity in her chip, all while her head remains hidden under a cheeseburger bag, achieves a combination of comedy and pathos worthy of Charlie Brown. Not many people can do excellent paper-bag-over-the-head acting, but Milioti is one of them.
She also has a nice, lived-in chemistry with Romano that makes their father-daughter dynamic believable in its swings from charged to comfortable. And Magnussen, who has played smarmy types before, including on Somerville’s Maniac (another modern cautionary tale but about pharmaceuticals), once again proves his gift for smiling winningly through acts of wild narcissism.
As great as the cast is, though, throughout Made for Love’s first half you may find yourself wishing the show would make you feel more of … something, an ironic shortcoming for a series that’s subtextually championing the concept of genuine, organic emotion. Made for Love is decently made and certainly watchable, but as with the in medias res opening, nonlinear storytelling, and well-covered themes about tech that goes too far, it’s tough to shake the sense that we have seen this show before. The potential for that to change in the second half of the season is definitely there, though, so consider this review a response to Made for Love, but one that’s still in beta testing.