Intimacy in relationships is so often about feeling seen. And for Byron Gogol, the tech billionaire at the center of the seriocomic HBO Max series “Made for Love,” there’s no better way to ensure his wife, a long-haired beauty named Hazel, feels understood than to surreptitiously implant a chip in her head that gives him access to “rudimentary emotional data” as well as her four senses.
That’s right, four senses: “Byron doesn’t believe in smell,” Hazel wryly explains to her father after escaping the serenely upscale, subtly menacing ultra-modern compound where she’s spent every day of her life with Byron for the entirety of their 10-year marriage. Played by the terrifically sly Cristin Milioti (“Palm Springs”), Hazel has more or less been bugged with a GPS tracking device to allow her husband to control her more than ever.
I found the show cheekily bewitching, both sardonic and deeply deeply disturbing, because intimacy is also about feeling safe. Realizing your body and brain are being monitored and surveilled by your partner 24/7 will undercut that every time.
Adapted from Alissa Nutting’s 2017 satiric novel of the same name — Nutting is co-creator and head writer here as well — the show toggles back and forth between Hazel’s life before and after her breakout, the latter of which sees her fleeing back to the dumpy town where she grew up and the father she hasn’t talked to in a decade (played by Ray Romano).
Her drab childhood environs are the visual manifestation of all kinds of family disappointments, and this dusty place in the desert is the opposite of the hermetic, gleaming, virtual-reality abode she shared with Byron, where the lush greenery surrounding their house is only an illusion; in truth, the mostly empty Gogol Tech campus that doubles as their home sits in the middle of an arid landscape. Nothing is as it appears, inside or out. It’s all quite lovely. Until you look too closely.
It’s not so much a gilded cage as a pixilated one, and Hazel’s marriage to Byron is as empty as it is pampered. She lounges by the pool. Or naps. Or sits around the house, where she is prompted every so often to give a star rating for her most recent orgasm (it’s a frictionless sort of command, but it is incessant; the video game she’s playing won’t continue until she completes the task).
Let us pause for a moment to admire Nutting’s wit in giving this tech monster the name Gogol, which not only rings in the ear like a uncanny valley version of Google, but is surely also a nod to the 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, who had a way of plunking the surreal and strange into realistic settings, much like the story at hand.
“Alissa Nutting’s plots arrive with all the irrepressible, grotesque flamboyance of a flasher at a funeral,” is how a NPR review described her 2017 novel. That sensibility has carried over into the television series, with the added glossy sheen of prestige TV, but Nutting and showrunner Christina Lee are also making solid points amid all these absurdities. In the first four episodes made available to critics, there’s a lot of propulsion in the way each episode is structured, creating a very bingeable “what’s next?” energy — truly, what are Hazel’s options if she can’t get that chip removed? — so it’s ironic that the show is being released piecemeal, rather than all at once.
Everything kicks off when Hazel realizes she is unwitting User One in Byron’s newest innovation called Made for Love: The idea is that both partners get chipped and (in Byron’s creepy-sleek marketing speak) reach a state of “co-mingled hearts, co-mingled minds, co-mingled identities.” The tech is too new, too unstable to fully work with two brains yet, and so it is just Hazel alone carrying around this souped-up LoJack. The obvious if unspoken question is whether Byron ever intended to get chipped himself and allow his wife a peek into his own private experiences.
As played by Billy Magnussen (”Into the Woods”), Byron’s charm is so boyish you can practically hear the “ting” every time light bounces off his smile. His exquisitely groomed handsome perfection (a departure from the Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world) masks all kinds of manipulative tendencies. Tantrums are perpetually roiling just beneath the surface and they are pitched in such a way that you can’t help but laugh. It’s an incredible performance, really, because Byron is ridiculous. He’s also really, really scary.
Thanks to that chip, it doesn’t take him long to track down Hazel at her father’s trailer, where he pleads with her, “You’re the thing —”
“— person,” she interrupts.
He corrects himself: “— person I care about the most.” But it’s not just Byron who views women as things. As possessions. Hazel’s father, a lovelorn, sweet-seeming, down-on-his-luck type, wheels his beloved life-size sex doll around upright on a hand truck, as if she were a corpse. Or a prisoner.
The show is absolutely mocking tech titans who never once blink at the potential harms and personal invasions their innovations may enable, but they’re not the only ones getting zinged here. Rippling beneath that satire is some very pointed commentary about the way men view women. In Hazel’s most frantic moments post-escape — some of it blood-splattered — her father and even male strangers don’t seem alarmed or concerned or even curious about what’s got her so freaked out. It isn’t until the fourth episode that Hazel is finally in the presence of another woman (her best friend from years back, played by the wonderful Patti Harrison) with whom she can have a meaningful exchange.
“Give the guy a break, you’re a handful,” her father says when Byron shows up to persuade her back. Oh, the hypocrisy of that line because you could say that about any character on this show. That’s intentional, I think. Everyone is a handful! But only she is expected to wear that like a badge of shame.
It took a decade for Hazel to wake up from the carefully opulent somnambulism her husband designed for her, and now she’s on the run, scraggly and frazzled and not quite sure of who she is or what she wants.
In the Gogolverse, with her hair flat-ironed and her smile strained, she has the studied poise of a Hollywood starlet, looking like a simulacrum of Jennifer Love Hewitt. Back in the real world she’s a mess, but she’s also jaded enough not to care.
She is a woman finally ready to step in front of the mirror and see who she really is.
“Made for Love” — 3 ½ stars (out of 4)
Running time: The season is eight half-hour episodes
Where to watch: HBO Max; the first three episodes premiere April 1; the following three on April 8; the final two on April 15.
This article was written by Nina Metz from the Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
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