The biggest shock to HBO Max’s Made for Love is not its central premise, however distorted it may be: Hazel (Cristin Milioti) is a woman running away from her billionaire husband, technology tycoon, Byron (Billy Magnussen), who implanted a tracker chip in his brain that gives him access to four of his basic senses and emotions. (“Byron doesn’t believe in smells,” she explains, the look evident in her tone of voice, if not in her real eyes.) We’ve seen things more fucked up in other sci-fi dystopias before, including one that happened to star in her own. Milioti.
No, the surprise comes in flashes, as the show methodically opens its premise, and none of the characters seem as upset as you would think about the idea of someone implanting a tracking chip in their spouse’s brain. It is not an exaggeration to imagine a version of this story that is interpreted as pure terror (it would be The invisible man, basically), but Made for love tends more to the spicy satire. Combined with the half-hour episode duration, Made for Love’s scathing sense of humor seems positively cheerful compared to, say, the heavy-handed pessimism of a Black Mirror. It is just difficult to say, at least in the first four episodes given to critics, whether this is a sign that the series intends to hit rock bottom – or whether the hidden depths are beneath its sparkling surface.
Either way, it is the ideal material for a special watch. Milioti never fails to be completely captivating like Hazel, even though the character seems like an extension of those she has played in projects like Palm Springs, equal parts of determined hero and dream girl. His cunning finds a perfect counterweight in Byron de Magnussen, who is described as a “wise genius” or a “narcissistic megalomaniac”, but so far mostly resembles his forgotten brats from Into the Woods, Game Night and Aladdin. That it is initially a mystery how these people ended up together is a little frustrating and a little bit of fun; the show distributes the background story and spins on the right clip to keep you on the hook without overloading or completely losing it.
With each new piece of the puzzle, the image becomes more and more interesting. Made for Love debuted with the first three episodes and, although it is intriguingly strange from the first, it is not until the third that it becomes apparent how strange Byron and Hazel’s life is with him: they spent their entire marriage years sheltered in a massive virtual reality structure that can simulate anywhere on the planet and eat mostly flavor pellets designed to mimic the taste of real food. And it’s not until episode 4 (which will open on April 8 with episodes 5 and 6) that it starts clicking how and why she entered this world to begin with, and who she was outside of it.
But even here, around the middle of the eight-episode season, it’s still unclear where this is going. Made for love it is full of bread crumbs so big and oddly shaped that they must be going somewhere: why doesn’t Byron know about normal things like donut holes and piñatas? What’s the matter with Zelda, the unhappy dolphin that lives in your pool? What tricks do Fiffany (Noma Dumezweni) and Herbert (Dan Bakkedahl), Byron’s seemingly disgruntled employees, have up their sleeve?
There are also bigger questions about what bigger themes the series is achieving, or what more ambitious goals it may have in mind. It seems obvious that Byron and his company, Gogol (yes), intend to stick with today’s technology giants, but less obvious is whether their sins are born out of more clueless rights or cold calculations. There is a striking parallel between Hazel’s relationship with a controlling man and her distant father’s (Ray Romano) relationship with a woman he can literally control – his sex doll, Diane – but it’s hard to say what that parallel means. How much of all this means a comment on modern romance in general, and how much on toxic relationships in particular?
And again, what should we do with the program’s evaluation of our technological dystopia? In episode 3, Hazel, who knows that Byron is seeing everything she sees, watches someone in an intimate moment, without warning that someone else is watching too. It is not clear whether the program considers this a violation on Hazel’s part, to be followed later, or whether such surveillance is an integral part of life in this very connected culture, or whether it simply did not take into account the feelings of the other character . None of the possibilities are necessarily impeding, but it seems revealing that any one of them can be true.
The wait-and-see approach to Made for Love to tell stories means that the second half of the season, which has eight episodes in total, will make or break the show as a whole. And its out-of-shape tone means that the second half can take us anywhere. Perhaps we will end up in a state of ecstasy, serene in the digital fantasy world that the series has built for us, satisfied with its responses and enthusiastic about its insights. Or it is possible that we may be disappointed or angry, anxious to distance ourselves from this series as much as possible. As with anyone entering a new relationship, all we can do is hope it will be good while it lasts. Perhaps it will be enough.