HBO Max’s adaptation of Alissa Nutting’s novel slows the pace and amps up the humanity
If the pandemic had never happened, the new streaming TV show Made for Love would have felt like a perfectly prescient blend of Black Mirror and Silicon Valley. The pitch: a brilliant tech CEO, Byron Gogol, controls his wife with his latest product, a brain implant that merges the minds of couples. When she manages to escape her creepy marriage and their high-tech campus/compound, The Hub, he can still see and hear everything she does, making her new life a living Hell. But funny!
A year after the world stopped, Made for Love lands a bit differently; its themes of unwanted surveillance, strained and overfamiliar relationships, and humans striving to overcome or escape their emotional shortcomings through technology resonate even more. And compared to the madcap, frantically paced 2017 Alissa Nutting novel on which it’s based, the TV version balances zany moments with a surprising amount of poignancy.
Nutting serves as writer and co-creator of the show, but by stripping away or slowing down so much of the novel’s plotting (perhaps saving some for future seasons) and thin characterizations, and relying less on sexual shocks or clever turns of phrase, this Made for Love is warmer, but also scarier. For instance, the show, unlike the book, doesn’t contain graphic depictions of sex with dolphins. The more realistic take on the main characters makes the stakes higher and the intrusive tech that much darker in its implications.
That bump in quality comes in no small part from a strong cast led by God’s gift to screenwriters, Cristin Milioti, who takes the novel’s chaotic center, Hazel Green, and gives her complex, contradictory life. Just when you think you know what Hazel will do next, Milioti’s mastery of comedic curveball line readings throws you off, or she sinks into a defeated funk with only her eyes that could crush a viewer’s soul. In the show’s strong first episodes, we learn a lot about Hazel just from Milioti’s body language, some sparse dialogue (it gets much denser later), and some carefully chosen flashbacks.
The actress, who famously almost saved the sitcom How I Met Your Mother’s disastrous last season as The Mother before it imploded, confidently steers the show through its funniest and saddest moments. When she’s not on screen, no matter how good its other parts are and how visually plausible all the technology is portrayed, Made for Love never feels as alive or as interesting. She’s that good.
That’s not for lack of great co-stars. Ray Romano nails the role of Hazel’s “Shit father” Herbert, a gone-to-seed dreamer who’s fallen in love with a sex doll/life companion named Diane. Like Milioti, Romano can turn a funny moment into a sad one on a dime, then back into a funny one. Together, the two actors convey years of hurt, fear, resentment, love, and a bit of nostalgia with just a few lines of dialogue. Herbert Green may be the most interestingly terrible, crumbling father to watch on TV since Don Draper.
But the big surprise, especially in the last few of Made for Love’s eight episodes, is Billy Magnussen as the chisel-chinned tech God. Byron Gogol for much of the season feels like the kind of cartoony caricature of out-of-touch tech founders that Silicon Valley did so well. But when Byron finally begins to understand where he’s gone wrong, he begins to seem less like a robotic villain and more like a big lost baby, or one of the helpless-by-design cherub-people from WALL-E. Magnusson strives to capture some of Gogol’s humanity, even as the script undercuts it at one crucial moment in the finale that feels like a cheap payoff.
Overall, though, Made for Love rises to the challenge of balancing its many moods and tones without collapsing. Though it sags in the middle episodes with too many side characters and MacGuffins on multiple spinning plates, the season starts and ends strongly, with enough material and characters left out from the novel (intentionally, according to its creators) to make a strong case for a Season Two and beyond.
Whatever it takes. Milioti’s Hazel is the best new character on television and we need more of her. Make more Made for Love, please.