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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Dissatisfaction brings about catastrophe and catharsis in HBO Max’s Made For Love

Cristin Milioti stars in HBO Max's Made For Love
Cristin Milioti in Made For Love
Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO Max
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HBO Max’s Made For Love deconstructs a relationship, one foreboding flashback at a time. The eight-part drama-comedy is faithful in tone and structure to its source material, the 2017 novel of the same name, right down to its in medias res opening. But where Alissa Nutting introduced her book’s protagonist by also introducing her father and his interesting new girlfriend, as a writer and executive producer on the TV adaptation, she has Hazel (Cristin Milioti) crawl out of a sewer in an iridescent green dress, like some haute couture alligator.

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The series’ opening is an inspired way to evoke the novel’s Florida-ness (though the setting has been relocated to some undisclosed state), but it’s also indicative of its main drawback—a tendency to over-punctuate story beats. Seeing Hazel resplendent in her fury despite having just waded through sewage is undeniably piquant, but it also feels a bit like gilding the narrative lily. The premiere episode (and at least one other) begins with a fake promo for the very technology being explored in the series: a chip that allows you to read your partner’s thoughts. After a montage of Gogol products and services, the ad features Hazel wandering through the digital woods to find a man, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), who we soon learn is actually her husband. Even after they finally meet, their temples flashing gold with their new implants, she looks no less lost.

Though it’s not as visceral as Hazel’s middle-finger-waving desert scene, the ad and its artificial romance are effectively disquieting—especially once Byron reveals to his wife that he deep-faked her for the promo. Rather than let that and other subtler moments sink in, Made For Love repeatedly underscores the dread and desperation of Hazel’s predicament, often by flashing back to the many red flags in her past. The flashbacks to their regimented marriage that accompany Hazel’s present-day encounters with Byron make for a most unnerving digital scrapbook, one that should be labeled “Something About This Relationship Was Always Off.” Those frequent trips to the past also make for a fitful pace, no matter how seamless the work of Made For Love’s woman-led directing roster.

After Hazel’s introduction, the story jumps back anywhere from 24 hours to two decades into her past, retracing the steps that eventually lead her back to her father’s (Ray Romano) doorstep. Just one day before her sewer run, Hazel was ensconced in the “Hub,” a technological marvel created by her tech wunderkind husband Byron (Billy Magnussen). Her life runs like clockwork, her naps the only thing more regulated than her orgasms, though they’re equally reliable. Even with all this cutting-edge tech and luxury, Hazel is clearly miserable—that is, to anyone who isn’t her husband or employed by Gogol. Except that Byron does seem to have caught on, thanks to the chip he’s already implanted in Hazel’s head that allows him to see everything and hear everything she does, including giving him the finger after giving him a kiss.

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Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO Max

The first half of season one follows Hazel’s misadventures as she tries to evade capture with a billion-dollar piece of hardware in her head. Once she arrives in her hometown of Twin Sands, she also has to reckon with the life she left behind when she married Byron after one date (truly, the signs were always there). Made For Love’s inspired production design carves out two distinct settings, which Hazel navigates with more than a little difficulty. The Hub is a sterile, character-less (and odor-less, which factors into one of the sillier subplots) place, save for the dolphin, Zelda, who resides in the pool. Twin Sands, meanwhile, is a one-mechanical-bull town with nothing but characters, yet Hazel’s widower dad Herbert (Ray Romano) is still an outcast because his girlfriend Diane is quite literally a sex doll. So even though Hazel’s still very much within Byron’s reach in Twin Sands, she might as well be on another planet. And while he can see and hear everything she does, he can’t actually predict what she’ll do next.

As we finally begin to understand how Hazel ended up married to a man she can’t stand for more than one cunnilingus session at a time, Made For Love comes to life. This is very much a story of a woman leaving her controlling husband, a journey that showrunner-director Christina Lee handles with sensitivity. But in the spirit of Nutting’s book and Lee’s previous work with aimless protagonists, Made For Love leans into Hazel’s own shortcomings. In the fourth episode, the strongest of the season so far, director Stephanie Laing and writers Kim Steeles and Sarah McCarron construct an elaborate trap for Hazel, only to have her practically leap into the snare. After watching Hazel rail against Byron, this moment of unthinking acquiescence comes as a shock—and, coming at the midseason point, it also sets up an intriguing back half. Is Hazel lonely or fatalistic? Can she even tell the difference?

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More broadly, Made For Love explores what true intimacy looks like. Herbert and Byron pride themselves on “intuiting” their partners’ needs, but they’re really just projecting. And yet, Hazel keeping her wants and thoughts to herself doesn’t exactly allow for Byron to learn about them. The series makes it clear that Byron’s overstepping with his multimedia conglomerate Gogol, but it also raises questions about Hazel’s inability to meet anyone halfway.

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Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO Max
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That reticence is in the character’s DNA, but the TV version of Hazel is much more active overall. Milioti brings such definition to Hazel that we never lose sight of her even when the writers’ chicanery throws her and the viewer for another loop. Even Hazel’s anger is far from one note; as it degrades after the initial adrenaline rush, Milioti’s performance marks the half lives, from the first “fuck off” to her rage at learning that she’s a walking prototype. The Palm Springs star has great scene partners in Romano, who’s oddly disarming as Hazel’s dad, and her one-time Black Mirror co-star Magnussen, who plays the perfect avatar for the “disruptors” who have done as much to undermine our way of living as facilitate it. The pleasure Magnussen takes in Byron’s “flavor balls” (meal replacements) and other little “upgrades” comes across as both pompous and sincere.

Made For Love preserves the book’s send-up of techbros and, via the Hub, offers striking visuals. Byron is an unsettling amalgam of real-life Silicon Valley billionaires and, as it unfolds, the series will likely delve even further into matters of privacy and corporate overreach. But for now, its bleakest element is floating the possibility that you can never really know someone else. In that sense, it’s downright Orwellian. And yet, there’s more than a glimmer of hope in the fact that the inciting event for this promising sci-fi dramedy is one woman’s dissatisfaction.

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