'Made for Love': TV Review

Cristin Milioti in 'Made for Love.'
Courtesy of John P. Johnson / HBO Max
Cristin Milioti holds together a show that could use more heart to go with the quirk.
4/1/2021

Cristin Milioti plays a woman fleeing her mogul husband in HBO Max's semi-futuristic, semi-satirical look at the intersection of romance and technology.

We need to talk about Cristin Milioti.

In one project after another, the actress has built a résumé of roles that require her to both embrace a certain heightened absurdity and ground the emotional stakes of the world her character is inhabiting. She's what holds together the second season of Fargo, the "USS Callister" episode of Black Mirror and Hulu breakout Palm Springs, but for the purposes of major awards, she's consistently been overlooked in favor of male co-stars. Even going back to the closing run of How I Met Your Mother, very few actresses have as frequently gravitated toward oddball productions that, in retrospect, wouldn't have been nearly as funny or had nearly the emotional clout without them.

We need to talk about Cristin Milioti.

Fortunately, her latest project, the HBO Max dark comedy Made for Love, is probably her most Milioti-centric vehicle yet.

After a commercial for a new technological innovation that promises to join the minds of married couples, the series begins with Milioti's Hazel emerging from some sort of hatch in the middle of the desert. She's drenched, wearing a sparkling green cocktail dress and, some distance in the background, there's a dazzling architectural structure that's either a modernist mansion or a mirage. How, this in medias res opening demands we ask, did we get here?

Adapted from Alissa Nutting's 2017 novel by a quartet of scribes credited as "Alissa Nutting & Dean Bakopoulos and Patrick Somerville and Christina Lee," Made for Love asks many layers of "How did we get here?" questions in breaking down Hazel's 10-year marriage to tech mogul Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). Byron is the inventor of the brain-melding chip, as well as ubiquitous cellphones and the VR-dominated Hub, the development campus and aforementioned modernist structure Hazel is fleeing from. How did Hazel come to be living in the Hub? Why does she finally decide to leave a life that includes friendly dolphins, regularly evaluated orgasms and perfect simulated weather? And why, upon departing, is Hazel seeking refuge with her estranged and extremely odd father (Ray Romano)?

I've complained about enough clumsy in medias res series openers in recent months — The Luminaries, The Stand, etc. — that there's some pleasure in noting that the hoary device works well here. There are enough details that demand investigation in the brief opening to give Made for Love a certain momentum that it wouldn't have otherwise. In fact, I'd argue that the stuff in the story's "present" is mostly effective as an excuse to backtrack to the past, and the major liability is a lack of propulsive interest in anything going forward. Most shows require a "What will the main character do next?" engine, and I very quickly found my curiosity in Hazel's next steps waning at the end of the four episodes sent to critics. It does help that Made for Love has a half-hour running time and my tolerance for narrative stagnation at that length is high if the dialogue is sharp, the performances are strong and the themes are interesting.

There's unquestionably a lot of Black Mirror in this show's "Technology that's meant to bring us closer together is actually alienating us" ethos, with just a dash of Amazon's enjoyable Upload; like those shows, this is an exploration of the impact of futuristic advancements on relationships. The core technology in Made for Love is intrusive and dehumanizing and no reasonable person is going to think that the mechanical combining of two brains seems like a good idea. But I enjoyed it as an extrapolation on the way we turn TV characters and real couples into "shipper" relationships in which we create portmanteaus for their partnerships and their shared identities.

You only need that much understanding of the techno-satirical backdrop to buy into the heightened, stylistic world created by the writing team and amplified by directors led by Stephanie Laing. Everything in Made for Love is a little bit our world and a little bit some dystopian future, the directors layering that familiarity and strangeness — whether it's an intrusive sound design, unnervingly comforting oldies-driven soundtrack choices or the meticulous cinematography often alternating between voyeuristic and first-person perspectives.

A lot of the characters in Made for Love try to psychoanalyze Hazel, pointing out her difficulties making decisions or an estrangement from emotion tied to her mother's death. But I don't think Milioti is playing anything that clearly defined. Sometimes she's a robotic Stepford Wife, sometimes she's almost animalistic in her search for sensory experiences, sometimes she's sardonic and jaded, and sometimes weirdly innocent — and it all makes sense as Milioti plays it. She accepts the outlandish with wide eyes, and there's a nice contrast between her performance and Magnussen's scary, but still possibly well-meaning, intensity (he comes across as part-way between Michael Fassbender in Jobs and Michael Fassbender in real life).

Providing strong supporting turns are Dan Bakkedahl and Noma Dumezweni as a pair of tech wizards relegated to henchman status and Romano, investing a character who could have floated away in a sea of quirk with his trademark sad-sack realism.

All of the performances keep Made for Love anchored in something believable. I'll keep tuning in for the stars and bursts of tart dialogue at least for a while, but even with the half-hour doses, I'll need to start feeling some deeper emotional connection and interest in where the story is progressing to continue. Cristin Milioti may just be able to make that happen.

Cast: Cristin Milioti, Billy Magnussen, Dan Bakkedahl, Noma Dumezweni, Augusto Aguilera, Caleb Foote and Ray Romano

Creators: Alissa Nutting & Dean Bakopoulos and Patrick Somerville and Christina Lee

Episodes premiere Thursday, April 1, April 8 and April 15 on HBO Max.