The biggest shock of HBO Max’s Made for Love isn’t its central premise, as twisted as it is: Hazel (Cristin Milioti) is a woman on the run from her billionaire tech mogul husband, Byron (Billy Magnussen), who’s implanted a tracking chip in her brain that gives him access to four of her senses and her basic emotions. (“Byron doesn’t believe in smell,” she explains, the eye-roll evident in her tone of voice if not her actual eyes.) We’ve seen more fucked-up things in other sci-fi dystopias before, including one that happened to star Milioti herself.
With each new piece of the puzzle, the picture gets more and more interesting.
No, the surprise comes in flashes, as the show methodically unspools its premise, and none of the characters seem quite as upset as you’d think about the idea of someone implanting a tracking chip into their spouse’s brain. It’s not a stretch to imagine a version of this story that’s played as straight-up horror (it would be The Invisible Man, basically), but Made for Love leans more toward spiky satire. Combined with the half-hour episode run time, Made for Love‘s mordant sense of humor feels positively breezy in comparison to, say, the heavy-handed pessimism of a Black Mirror. It’s just difficult to tell, at least in the first four episodes given to critics, whether that’s a sign the show intends to stick to the shallow end — or if hidden depths lay beneath its shimmering surface.
Either way, it’s ideal binge-watch material. Milioti is never less than completely arresting Hazel, even if the character feels like an extension of ones she’s already played in projects like Palm Springs, equal parts determined hero and dream girl. Her shrewdness finds a perfect counterweight in Magnussen’s Byron, who is described as either a “genius savant” or a “megalomaniacal narcissist” but so far mostly just resembles his oblivious brats from Into the Woods, Game Night, and Aladdin. That it’s initially a mystery how these people ended up together in the first place is a little bit frustrating and a little bit part of the fun; the show doles out backstory and twists at just the right clip to keep you on the hook without either overwhelming you or losing you completely.
With each new piece of the puzzle, the picture gets more and more interesting. Made for Love premiered with the first 3 episodes, and while it’s intriguingly odd from the first, it’s not until the third that it becomes apparent just how weird Byron and Hazel’s life with him are: They’ve spent the entirety of their years-long marriage ensconced in a massive VR structure that can simulate any place on the planet, and eat mostly flavor pellets engineered to mimic the taste of real food. And it’s not until episode 4 (which will premiere April 8 with episodes 5 and 6) that it starts to click how and why she entered this world, to begin with, and who she was outside of it.
But even here, around the halfway point of the eight-episode season, it’s still unclear where any of this is headed. Made for Love is littered with breadcrumbs so big and strangely shaped that they must be going somewhere: Why doesn’t Byron know about normal things like donut holes and piñatas? What’s the deal with Zelda, the unhappy dolphin who lives in their pool? What tricks do Fiffany (Noma Dumezweni) and Herbert (Dan Bakkedahl), Byron’s apparently disgruntled employees, have up their sleeves?
There are bigger questions, too, about what larger themes the series is reaching for, or what more ambitious aims it might have in mind. That Byron and his company, Gogol (yup), are meant to skewer today’s tech giants seems obvious, but less obvious is whether his sins are born more of clueless entitlement or cold calculation. There’s a conspicuous parallel between Hazel’s relationship with a controlling man and her estranged 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 any of this is meant as a commentary on modern romance in general, and how much on toxic relationships in particular?
And, again, what are we to make of the show’s assessment of our tech dystopia? In episode 3, Hazel, who knows Byron is seeing everything she sees, watches someone in an intimate moment, without warning them that someone else is watching too. It’s not clear whether the show clocks this as a violation on Hazel’s part, to be followed up on later, or whether it figures such surveillance is part and parcel of life in this too-connected culture, or whether it’s simply failed to factor in the other character’s feelings at all. None of the possibilities are necessarily dealbreakers, but it seems telling that any of them seem like they could be true.
Made for Love‘s wait-and-see approach to storytelling means the second half of the season, which runs eight episodes total, will make or break the show as a whole. And its off-kilter tone means that the second half could take us just about anywhere. Perhaps we’ll end up in a state of bliss, serene in the digital fantasy world the series has built for us, satisfied with its answers and excited by its insights. Or it’s possible we’ll end up disappointed or angry, eager to put as much distance between ourselves and this series as possible. As with anyone entering a new relationship, all we can do is hope it’ll be good while it lasts. Maybe that’s enough.