Like so many love stories, “Made for Love” may not be built to last, and it’s certainly not a healthy romance, but these two kids might just make it work anyway. Well, two kids, one parent, and a sex doll, to be specific.
The HBO Max original series — about a woman trying to escape her controlling tech billionaire husband after he puts a chip in her brain without telling her — is often charming (thanks mainly to its well-assembled cast), well-acted (again, great casting), and fitfully bizarre (in a good way), even if it doesn’t exactly put its best foot forward. Writers Alissa Nutting, Patrick Somerville, Dean Bakopoulos, and Christina Lee (who also serves as showrunner) split the pilot into two timelines: one in the “present” and the other 24 hours prior. These early episodes can be frustrating, as very basic questions distract from the sci-fi satire’s broader ideas and emotional engagement, but after “Made for Love” gets its backstory out of the way, there’s ample time left to dig into issues of identity, trust, and the general purpose of a romantic relationship — even one with a sex doll.
In the present, Cristin Milioti’s Hazel Green is crawling out of a flooded sewer grate in the desert. Gasping for air and bleeding from her head, Hazel crawls out of the tunnel wearing a sparkling green dress, ready to flip the bird to a shiny metallic structure far off in the distance. Bam! Cut to the past, one day prior, when Hazel and her husband Byron (Billy Magnussen) are happily living large in that very same metallic structure. You see, Byron is the founder of Gogol (yes, this sounds a lot like Google, and no, hearing “Gogel” every five minutes doesn’t get any less weird): a tech company that makes the most popular computers, phones, tablets, and other devices in the world.
Byron is, from the first minute you meet him, a douchebag. He chuckles gleefully at a news report about how customers fighting over his new tablet caused multiple injuries. He forces Hazel to review her own orgasms with star ratings before going over those reviews with one of his minions. And, ya know, Byron’s years-in-the-making new business idea is the Made for Love chip: a microchip implanted in the brains of any couple so that they can “share one mind.” In practice, the beta version allows the user to track and watch their partner at all times, while also giving them access to “emotional data.” Byron sees all this as a way of eliminating those nagging misunderstandings couples suffer, while remaining completely oblivious to the chip’s more obvious functions: unparalleled personal surveillance and, quite possibly, mind control.
So, let’s go back to that opening scene, right after Hazel escapes from Byron’s lair. The questions elicited by the flash-forward quickly shift from, “Oh no, what happened to her?” to “Why did she run screaming from her tranquil life with her rich husband?” — and yet the more pressing question is, “Why did Hazel ever marry Byron to begin with?” That’s not exactly the priority for a show ostensibly about the allure and fear of codependent partnerships, or or even Big Tech’s continued invasion of our privacy. Plenty of people get so close to their partner that they share many of the same thoughts and opinions, and plenty of romances can be so intense that choosing to share one mind might be compelling. Maybe you want to be that close to someone, or maybe you just don’t want to worry if your husband remembered to pay the gas bill or take out the trash for the 1000th time.
“Made for Love” takes too long answering why Hazel and Byron ended up together, but it does get there. Hazel and Byron’s relationship wasn’t as perfect as it looked, there were disagreements, and Byron, being the comically villainous tech billionaire he is, tried to pull Hazel closer whenever she edged further away. Even in the context of whacky, dark comic science fiction, all of these relationship issues are relatable and well worth exploring. They can be hard to appreciate — or be frightened by how closely you relate to the central couple — considering that one of them is such a Zuckerbergian asshat, but the writers eventually try to pivot Byron away from “evil” and toward “stupid,” which is easier to empathize with (if still inviting a far-too-real parallel).
Punctuated by biting jokes, the 10-episode series would never work without its fine central performances. Milioti’s wide-eyed expressions are stretched to enamoring extremes (her versatility can’t be overvalued), and “Casual” fans will be excited to see Nyasha Hatendi pop up as a plain-spoken reporter. Ray Romano, who keeps finding fascinating roles in peculiar places, plays Hazel’s father Herbert, a widower who lives out in the desert with — here you go — his synthetic partner / sex doll, Diane. After losing his wife to cancer and his daughter to an isolating marriage, Herbert has plenty of baggage to work through, and after four episodes, there’s reason to believe he’ll eventually do just that. Perhaps more importantly, his relationship with Diane actually feels like an important parallel to Hazel’s marriage to Byron. The man may be in complete control of both, but it’s easy to see which partner actually cares about (and for) the other.
Herbert’s tender yet raw presence feels like a balm on Hazel and Byron’s toxic emotional split. No matter what its broader satirical goals about invasive tech developers preying on people’s worst fears, Herbert is the proof that “Made for Love” still knows the real deal: that true love can’t be quantified, only felt. The more the show lets us feel it, the better off it will be.
“Made for Love” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. HBO Max will release the series in April.