Cristin Milioti, an actress of irrepressible charisma, is for some reason a natural at playing women who are being squashed, constrained, or otherwise manipulated by some of the worst men on the planet. Here is an example: In a television series that begins as a romantic comedy but ends in horror, she is courted by a man who behaves less like a devoted lover than he does a bloodhound on the scent. He toes the line that separates “quirky” from “crazy” from the moment that they meet, piling on the kind of slick romantic gestures that already seem more than a little creepy in the movies, and in life seem like the actions of a psychopathic stalker. His love for her is contingent on her ability to absorb and mirror his own particular tastes and attitudes. Always, she seems far too good for him and far more interesting than he deserves, and always there is a suspicion that if she were to expire, he would switch her out for an entirely new wife whom he would idolize identically. Watching her being chased by this serial fantasist who is obsessed with making her into his most valuable possession—to say nothing of his weird, intense, and utterly misguided characterization of romantic love as two halves merging into one amorphous whole, as if a wife were some vestigial organ rather than an actual human woman—we begin to wonder two things: What the hell is with this guy? and What the hell does she see in him? We can only conclude that he must have really, truly got into her head.
Enough, though, about How I Met Your Mother and Ted Mosby—we are here to discuss HBO’s new series Made for Love, in which Milioti plays the pragmatically named and miserable Hazel Green, a woman suckered into marriage with a tech billionaire named Byron Gogol who approximates a cross between a frightening Ken doll and a slicker Elon Musk. For a decade, Green and Gogol have been living in a closed-off, cubic mansion called The Hub, surrendering their every moment and their every human process—eating, sleeping, sex, etc.—to 24-hour monitoring and surveillance. Hazel can no longer have an orgasm without being asked to rate her satisfaction levels out of five, or skip a nap without being hectored by the operating system on her tablet. In their swimming pool, they have a captive female dolphin, who is fitted with a chip that allows Byron and his staff to monitor her moods and needs, an experiment whose eventual goal is to transfer a version of the same technology to human couples.
Love, thinks Byron, would be easier to maintain if it were possible to read your partner’s mind, putting an end to infidelity and miscommunication, and allowing couples to meld seamlessly into a single, blissful consciousness. He is hardly the first man to seek an answer to the long-debated question of what women really want, and he is not the first supposed genius, either, to completely overlook the simplest, most obvious solution to the problem. Hazel, never once being asked what she desires from her life or from their marriage, is beginning to grow restless and resentful. When her husband proudly tells her that he plans to stick a chip into her brain, she decides that no amount of streamlined luxury is worth spending a lifetime as a surveilled, servile wife-bot and escapes back to the real, unstreamlined world.
Because prestige television series are apparently now legally required to begin in medias res, we are introduced to Hazel in the moments immediately following her escape: dripping wet, bleeding from a minor head wound, and emerging from a trapdoor in the desert. After that, we toggle between her stifling, antiseptic life in Byron’s high-tech compound and her inglorious return to her childhood home, which is a trailer. Her long-estranged father, who is played by Ray Romano in a stroke of what is either casting genius or madness, is a genial slob named Herbert who has recently adopted a blonde sex doll as a girlfriend. Hazel, who would not be there if she had any other place to hide from Byron, is disgusted, then resigned. If her hatred of the doll, which Herbert sometimes dresses up like her dead mother, stems from an entirely reasonable revulsion over picturing her father in flagrante with an inanimate woman, it is also not entirely separate from her newfound understanding of the role she has been playing for a decade at The Hub: that of a prop, a pretty captive dolphin in an azure swimming pool.
Made for Love is at its glitching, flashing heart an argument for the acceptance of a person’s least appealing qualities—their whims and ugly peccadilloes, their caprices and their cruelties—as features, and not bugs. Hazel’s childhood, spent in poverty and with too little love, ended up shaping her into the very particular kind of person who would be seduced by the idea of marrying a billionaire; she is a little desperate, capable of being ruthless, and spikier than most heroines in novels or TV shows about romance. It turns out that Byron chipped her anyway, while she was sleeping by the pool, and that accordingly he sees everything she sees and hears everything she hears, having successfully remade her into something closer to a webcam than a wife. She suspects he will eventually kill her if she doesn’t return home. It’s a funny, sick idea, turning a real dynamic into something futuristic and surreal: When love turns sour, and a marriage breaks down, your enemy ends up being the person who knows everything about you, helping them anticipate your every move.
In the original novel by Alissa Nutting, who both writes on and produces the HBO adaptation, their first meeting happens in a very funny, absolutely corny pastiche of the opening scenes of Fifty Shades of Grey: Hazel, as a 22-year-old ingénue, is sent to interview the powerful tech mogul, standing in for a journalist friend who has the stomach flu. He flatters her, makes her feel sexy and significant, and then convinces her to sign a contract that will bind her to him for the next six months, pending renewal if the two of them get hitched. (“You’re a little remarkable,” he tells her, on noticing that—perhaps because she is as klutzy as her counterpart in Fifty Shades, the simpleminded virgin Anastasia Steele—she has stuck a Band-Aid on the outside of her flesh-toned pantyhose to cover a shaving cut. Hazel knows that she is not remarkable, or even all that interesting, but she is flattered to be seen. “She loved how happy she was making him,” she observes, fondly, “just by appearing to have a great time.”)
The series ups the ante, maybe because spoofing something published in 2011 would not feel as au courant in 2021. The two meet outside a venue at which Byron is delivering a lecture, where an enterprising Hazel has been scalping phony tickets, and get married after six hours rather than after six months, the rush explained by her desire to escape her crummy life. If it seems unlikely that a woman would agree to enter into matrimony with a stranger just because that stranger happens to be wealthy, famous, and possessed of enviable dentistry, you have either not read many romance novels or not watched much romance-based reality TV.
The difference between those two setups is a perfect microcosm of the difference between Made for Love the novel and its TV adaptation: Nutting’s book is simply stranger, riskier, and less afraid to be in bad taste or to alienate its reader. Fifty Shades is not its only “literary” allusion—certainly the surname “Gogol” is designed to sound like “Google,” but off-screen the two halves of the mogul’s name feel like more obvious references to other writers, one half to the mad, bad, dangerous to know Romantic poet Lord Byron and the other to Nikolai Gogol, whose specific brand of surrealism and grotesquerie is no doubt entirely up Nutting’s street. Those who read the author’s Grub Street diet will be familiar with the driving impulse behind Made for Love: a maximalist, gleeful collaging of junk, Americana, and radioactive strangeness into something funny, wild, outlandish, and eccentric, leaving the impression that the woman who created it is authentically not like other people. Tampa, Nutting’s previous novel, had a similarly dark, hilarious streak but hewed a little closer to reality in its scope. Made for Love, which is certainly not quite like any other book on earth, is more freewheeling, dense with references—an experiment whose outcome is as vivid and as startling as a chip stuck in the brain.
The series—which has nixed a brilliant, loony B-plot that concerns a handsome con man who is bitten by a dolphin, then develops an attraction to the species—is not all that different from another show by co-creator Patrick Somerville, 2018’s sci-fi-pharmaceutical comedy-drama Maniac: It has the same offbeat and freaky sensibility, the same bright palette, and the same dystopian, near-future tech. (For the record: I watched Maniac in its entirety and yet remember almost nothing of the actual plot.) When the writer Daniel M. Lavery lampooned Black Mirror by suggesting that it raised the question “What if phones, but too much?” he unwittingly made almost everything that followed in its footsteps feel at least a little passé. What if apps, but too much? What if the distancing effect of interacting with technology 24/7, but too much? What if gender roles, but too much? What if objectification, but too much?
Made for Love, at least six episodes in, has not yet formulated novel or compelling answers to these questions. It has, in the same way every show she stars in tends to do, at least offered Cristin Milioti yet another opportunity to prove herself to be one of the funniest and most appealing actresses in television; it has given us the chance to see one of America’s longest-running family-friendly sitcom stars tenderly cradling a sex doll. Still, something does not feel quite as alive or as genuine as it ought to. There is an amusing, quietly frightening scene in Nutting’s novel in which Hazel realizes that Byron has replaced her, seeing his new bride on television and noticing that her comments sound familiar: “She just knew. That had been the agreement [she] had entered into, which was part of Hazel’s punishment: The only sentences [she] would be able to speak in public were sentences Hazel had spoken to Byron during the context of their marriage.”
Real romance, of course, is not ignited by a sense of the familiar, something parroted, but by the feeling that one is experiencing something no one else has ever felt before. Without that sense of revelation, what results seems pale and manufactured—likable, but not entirely made for love.