Cristin Milioti has claimed a strangely specific character niche: woman escaping from a twisted science fiction trap. In the “Black Mirror” episode “USS Callister” she was programmed into a simulation by her creepy boss. In “Palm Springs” last year, she and Andy Samberg found out how to break out of a time warp that she puts in a vicious rom-com cycle “Groundhog Day”.
In “Made for Love,” a light-hearted and dark comedy of technology, control, and gas light, the first three episodes of which will be released on HBO Max on Thursday, the noose is all in her head.
How physically. As with implanted. Like in a microchip.
Hazel Green (Milioti) received this unwanted hardware upgrade from her husband Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), who runs a global technology company. (Feel free to play around with the first vowel sound in “Gogol”.) For 10 years they have lived in a gold-plated cage – or rather in a gold-plated cube, a virtual reality environment called Hub, which is isolated from the messy outside world is world, with perfect weather forever and a dolphin playing sports in the swimming pool.
And in the last 10 years Byron has become more committed. Too devoted. “Let your wife review her biometrically recorded orgasms to better optimize them”. Ultimately, he decides that he loves her – and his technology – so much that he and she become “Users One” of his new Made for Love product, which turns couples into neural networks for two people with digitally connected brains. No more secrets, no more misunderstandings, no more private thoughts.
Who the hell would want that? You might ask a question “Made for Love” raises, but not quite an answer. For the purposes of the story, it is important that Byron wants it and Hazel emphatically doesn’t. This forces her to fly the cube, a crazy and violent escape that Byron looks on behind her eyeballs. (It turns out that he only implanted her chip, not his: “I had to read your diary first to know if I could let you read mine.”)
Based on the novel of the same name by Alissa Nutting, a writer and producer on the series, “Made for Love” plays out as a screwball action satire that probably has its terrifying premise – patriarchy and techno-utopianism as two sides of the same chip – go down easier than it would be direct drama. (Christina Lee from Search Party is the showrunner; other producers include Patrick Somerville from Netflix’s “Maniac,” with whom this shares a skeevy-dystopian vibe.)
The metaphors are never far below the surface here, like Byron and Hazel’s double-fingered wedding rings, which are reminiscent of tiny handcuffs. And when Hazel asks her widowed father Herb (Ray Romano) for help, she discovers that he has entered into a committed partnership with a sex doll named Diane – sorry, “synthetic partner”. Their one-sided relationship echoes what Byron is trying to make Hazel into a woman, but it’s also strangely tender and respectful.
“Made for Love” is barely subtle, and its cautionary technical story has been told repeatedly on “Black Mirror” and elsewhere. But it’s playful and funny and almost dynamic enough to hand wave away the many implausibilities. That includes the question of why Hazel, portrayed as a crafty, resourceful skeptic, would have been knocked off her feet by Byron, who from their first meeting raised enough red flags for a giant slalom course.
The casting helps with that. With her charm and anime eyes, Milioti is almost too perfect a rom-com lead guy. (She broke out on TV as the title character in How I Met Your Mother.) But she cleverly plays against this guy in stories that undermine expectations. Your hazel is torn, wild and sardonically on the run; In flashbacks to their married life at the Hub, you can almost hear her screaming behind her 10,000 watt smile.
Romano is perhaps one of the few actors you can imagine in bed with a humanoid sex toy that he dresses in his dead wife’s clothes. However, make your viewer think, “You know, this seems like a complicated guy who’s been through some rough patches. “
And Magnussen, who plays the broadest of the central roles, pushes Byron’s zeal beyond the sloping position. Incapable of most human relationships, Byron brought all of his emotional abilities to Hazel, both out of passion and out of the playful impulse to get the highest score in his marriage. He’s the epitome of both the obsessive Wife Guy and the Hubristian Tech Guy, and he makes the connection between the two guys clear.
He is also unfortunate in that a billionaire can be with godlike powers. “I’m the only person who really loves you!” he begs Hazel. “Lens!”
But it’s Milioti who gives the first half of the season (I’ve seen four episodes out of eight) its adrenaline. “Made for Love” is a crazy jerk in the cortex that requires a high tolerance for absurdity. What is the reason for Hazel’s journey from being a held woman to an action hero determined not to be a character in someone else’s love story?