The wonderful Cristin Milioti has become an unexpected Queen of high concept properties with her brilliant appearance on “Black Mirror,” underrated turn in “Palm Springs,” and HBO Max’s latest barely-sci-fi property, “Made for Love,” based on the 2017 book of the same name by Alissa Nutting. The new series on the fastest-growing streamer out there gives Milioti a nice platform for her talents, but doesn’t surround her with enough interesting material to allow the spotlight to shine as brightly as it should. After four episodes, this verges right on that line between disappointment and marginal success, and it might pull its problematic elements together after the initial four. But with so many options on HBO Max alone, will the viewers stick around?
“Made for Love” starts with a great concept. It examines toxic masculinity and the way tech has divided us as much as it’s united us through the story of Hazel (Milioti) and Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), the latter an Elon Musk-esque tech wizard whose company builds gadgets and machines that the world uses to make their lives better. He spends almost all of his time trying to expand the reach and ability of the company he named after himself, Gogol (subtle). He even lives in the Gogol Hub, the tech campus that’s basically an expansive virtual reality simulation. Want to go to Paris? Snap your fingers, and the world around you will make it look like you’re sitting by the Eiffel Tower. There’s never a reason to leave. Which is why Hazel basically hasn’t been allowed to for a decade, ever since her first date with the possessive Byron.
“Made for Love” opens with Hazel escaping the Hub and then circles back to detail what finally sent her over the edge to flee this tech prison: Byron’s long-promised project that implants a chip in the brains of two partners so they can feel and think the same things at the same time. As he tells people, “Every thought, every feeling, shared,” never asking himself what kind of sociopath would ever want that kind of invasion of privacy of their alleged loved one. Byron is the kind of toxic dude who believes that every time his partner isn’t thinking of him or doing something for him that he’s somehow failing. He even has a device on which Hazel can review her orgasms to make sure they’re perfect. Everything has been technologically refined to remove the humanity of it. And then Byron went and made Hazel the test subject for Made for Love, implanting a chip in her brain without her knowing it. Hazel needs to escape Byron, but the Bezos wannabe can see her every action and even feel her emotions. What happens when ‘Made for Love’ becomes ‘Made for Stalking’?
Hazel’s journey takes her home to a small town called Twin Sands, and back into the life of her father Herbert (Ray Romano), who has become a town outcast because he likes to show off his new “synthetic partner,” a real doll. It’s right here where it feels like “Made for Love” is about to start interrogating what partnership means. Its two male leads have very unusual concepts of partnership, with Byron wanting to control everything about his and Herbert not really caring that his partner literally doesn’t have a mind of her own. But the team behind “Made for Love” have a frustrating habit of dropping these ideas into their narrative and then not doing much with them. Part of the problem could be that the first four episodes—totaling less than two hours because this is, blessedly, a half-hour show—are required to fill in so many narrative gaps that the thematic exploration remains for the second half of the season. Or the writing just may not be up for the challenge of digging below the high concept.
Luckily for everyone involved, Milioti always brings her A-game. When “Made for Love” falters, she brings it back, able to sell the most insane high concepts by always believably being in and responding to every moment. She has to convey a lot in these two hours, playing both the early days of Byron/Hazel in flashback, her sterile life in the Hub, and then her escape. She nails it all. “Made for Love” has a darkly humorous streak—which co-star Dan Bakkedahl nails best of all, by the way, as a key Gogol employee tasked with getting Hazel back—but Milioti and Magnussen don’t wink at the camera, which would have destroyed the whole thing. They play this potential future nightmare straight. While one sometimes wishes that the writing around them was smarter and funnier, the actors are definitely doing everything they can to hold it together.
After four episodes, “Made for Love” is more “interesting” than “entertaining,” and I kept wishing it was more of the latter given its premise and ensemble. Now that the world of the show has been filled in, maybe it will be that in the back half of the season. Otherwise, it will be another original streaming show that’s basically made for no one.
Four episodes screened for review.