Last year, Cristin Milioti costarred in the delightful Palm Springs, a time-loop rom-com whose cynical surface, like her character’s, hid a soft heart. When the story kicks off, Nyles (Andy Samberg) is years into his personal reboot of Groundhog Day, while Sarah (Milioti) wakes up on the day of her sister’s wedding next to the intended groom. Through grit, science, and the strength of their own connection, Sarah and Nyles are able to escape from this wrinkle in space-time and move toward a functioning adult relationship.
This week, the actress headlines yet another sci-fi comedy set in the desert: Made for Love, the half-hour dramedy now available to stream on HBO Max. (The first three episodes premiered this Thursday; the remaining seven will air in two separate batches, wrapping up April 15.) For all their similarities, though, Palm Springs and Made for Love have opposite takes on the intersection of science and romance. In Palm Springs, messing with the natural order of things—first by accident, then by design—brings its heroes together. In Made for Love, optimizing amore is a recipe for disaster.
The current TV market for tech dystopia is largely cornered by Black Mirror. Milioti would know; she headlined the show’s “U.S.S. Callister,” a feature-length, Emmy-winning exploration of toxic nerd culture disguised as a Star Trek spoof. (She played Nanette, a computer programmer trapped in a video game by her creepy boss.) But while Made for Love has some obvious connections to Milioti’s prior work, it also has something they don’t: the twisted, anarchic voice of Alissa Nutting, the novelist behind the 2017 book of the same name.
Lewd, outrageous, and deliriously inventive, Nutting’s prose makes it hard to imagine anyone else capturing her voice, writers’ rooms included. Her first novel, Tampa, follows a Florida middle school teacher who routinely has sex with her male students; it’s at once an obvious commentary on the monstrosity we overlook in beautiful young women and a book you’ll feel guilty being seen with in public. (Harmony Korine optioned it for HBO in 2016. Perhaps, thankfully, the project never came to pass.) Nutting is also known for the epic food diary she penned for Grub Street while promoting Made for Love. Choice excerpt: “I will eat almost anything coated in orange dust. I feel bad for my internal organs, but also really curious about what they must look like.”
In a still-rare, if increasingly common, move for a TV adaptation, Nutting was deeply involved in the process of bringing Made for Love to HBO Max. In addition to serving as executive producer, Nutting also has full or partial script credit on four of the season’s 10 episodes, taking an active hand alongside writer-producer Patrick Somerville and showrunner Christina Lee. As the creator of Maniac, the Netflix star vehicle from 2018 set in a clinical drug trial, Somerville has his own experience with tonally dextrous genre romps; Lee comes off a stint on Search Party, another pitch-black tale of a woman spinning out of control.
Nutting’s work on the show makes it less surprising, though still remarkable, that the final product reflects the novel’s singular strangeness. Milioti plays Hazel, a listless drifter who’s spent the past decade married to a tech magnate named Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). Byron’s definitely a familiar trope—Nutting didn’t exactly hide the ball by all but naming him after a certain search engine—but Made for Love manages to do what so much satire does not and out-weird its own subject, and with it our expectations. Byron lives in the Hub, a compound of cube-shaped modules that can simulate the outside world. He tracks only the “four senses” because he doesn’t believe in smell. He makes Hazel rate her orgasms on a five-star scale like he’s an orally skilled Uber driver.
Hazel and her husband are an unlikely pair. An impulsive tornado of whims and wants, Hazel is the opposite of Byron’s compulsive need for control. Ironically, this makes her only more likely to agree to marry this eccentric egomaniac the very night they meet, after which she’s whisked away to the Hub and doesn’t leave for 10 years. The whirlwind romance of their meet-cute inevitably gives way to their obvious differences, but rather than start counseling or amicably part ways, Byron decides to invent his way out of romantic dysfunction. His solution: a pair of microchips implanted in a couple’s brains that merge their thoughts. He calls it Made for Love, and it’s Gogol’s next big launch.
A common charge against Big Tech holds that founders ignore real, big-picture problems in favor of minor inconveniences that afflict their comfortable lives: food delivery; ride-hailing; the perfect boxy shirt. Made for Love and its namesake innovation take that tendency to new lows. Byron has focused all the power and resources of his massive corporation on “solving” his own marriage, a union he proves is already beyond repair when he embeds a Made for Love implant in Hazel’s brain without her consent. “You are the thing I care most about,” he tells Hazel by way of explanation. “Person,” she corrects him.
Not that Hazel herself is some sainted victim. Her first move after escaping the Hub with the help of a dolphin named Zelda—just roll with it—is to hitch a ride to the strip club where she used to work, raid the break room for some sweats and a six pack, and chop four fingers off Byron’s head of security with an ax. (“Maybe you didn’t recognize me without my fingers,” he says later while helpfully holding up a plastic bag, an exercise in the show’s off-kilter sense of humor.) In lieu of a plan, she hightails it to the “shithole” where she grew up; upon arrival, she catches her dad in flagrante delicto with what he calls his “synthetic partner.” Said dad is played by Ray Romano, whom you can hear delivering a spoken-word rendition of “Crazy in Love” in the trailer.
Like most stories about love and attachment, Made for Love comes down to the family unit; this one just happens to include a sex doll named Diane. As the episodes go on (critics have seen four), we start to understand Hazel as the product of a father with alcoholism, a prematurely deceased mother, and a generally chaotic upbringing. It’s this kind of messiness that Byron wants to banish from his perfectly curated Hub, but his sterile innovations will inevitably fail to iron it out. After a decade away, Hazel takes to reality in all its undisrupted glory like a pig in shit, chugging beer and hooking up with a hot homebrewer she locates by scent. There’s no beer in the Hub, so she’s making up for lost time.
Made for Love has plenty to say about technology, capitalism, obsession, and erotics. But neatly packaged lessons about big ideas would run contrary to its ethos. In telling a story about an individual wriggling free of a stifling terrarium—literally gasping to the surface, makeup streaked, in the premiere’s in medias res opening—Made for Love lets itself be as wild and slippery as its near-feral antiheroine. For all the outlandish details that populate the background (“Clicks and Stones: Your memes hurt me,” reads a PSA billboard just outside of Hazel’s hometown) it’s the rare work of speculative fiction that feels irrepressibly real.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Somerville as showrunner.