Based on the novel by Alissa Nutting, Made For Love is a darkly absurd and cynically poignant story of love and divorce with a sci-fi twist. The comedy series, a Max Original currently streaming on HBO Max, follows Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti), a thirty-something woman on the run after 10 years in a suffocating marriage to Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), a controlling tech billionaire. Soon she discovers that her husband has implanted a monitoring device — the Made for Love chip — in her brain, allowing him to track her, watch her, and access her “emotional data” as she tries to regain her independence. Through the chip, Byron’s able to watch Hazel’s every move as she flees to her desert hometown to take refuge with her aging widower father Herbert (Ray Romano) and his synthetic partner, Diane.
Is Made for Love science fiction or is it a romantic comedy? It’s really both of those things, but — above all — the series is a sendup of Silicon Valley tech culture. “The problem with satirizing Silicon Valley is that the tech industry moves so fast and breaks so many things that it’s impossible for filmmakers to keep up,” Matthew Dessem writes in his review of the series for Slate:
“You can quickly verify this by rewatching The Social Network: Received back in 2010 as a withering portrait of Facebook, the movie suggests that the company’s fatal flaw has to do with misunderstanding the nature of friendship, which doesn’t hit quite as hard now that they’ve moved on to facilitating both QAnon and genocide. (Similarly, compare Silicon Valley’s 2014 pilot, which promised a light comedy about nerds with more money than sense, to its 2019 finale, in which the main characters almost destroy civilization.) You just can’t outrun those guys, but as HBO Max’s funny and surprising new show Made for Love demonstrates, if you aren’t trying to craft the definitive statement about humanity’s relationship with technology, you can get in some good laughs along the way.”
In her review for Mashable, Angie Han calls Made for Love “ideal binge-watch material,” noting that “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.”
The surprise of the series isn’t its central premise, writes Han, but the fact that none of the characters seem quite as upset as one would 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… but Made for Love leans more toward spiky satire,” Han observes, with half-hour episodes that feel “positively breezy in comparison to, say, the heavy-handed pessimism of a Black Mirror.”
No stranger to the Black Mirror aesthetic, Milioti and Magnussen both appeared in the Emmy Award-winning “USS Callister” episode of the hit dystopian series that paid homage to both Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Milioti also starred alongside Andy Samberg in the recent breakout comedy feature Palm Springs, directed by Max Barbakow.
“I’m attracted to things that can’t be categorized,” Milioti told Kevin Fallon, senior entertainment reporter for The Daily Beast:
“Of course, you could say the show is a dark comedy, or sci-fi-like. But I’ve also never seen a relationship between a father and daughter portrayed this way, or divorce and a failing marriage portrayed this way. I love that it has this sneaky approach where you are watching this heightened sci-fi, dark-comedy world and suddenly you see yourself in it, or you see your family, or you see just how desperate we all are to connect sometimes.”
Shows like Black Mirror and Made for Love “present our increased reliance on technology and the whims of tech-company agendas as something to be horrified by,” writes Fallon. But in Made for Love “the tinges of horror and the big science fiction ideas are always balanced by surreal, riotous comedy.”
In an interview with Saloni Gajjar for AV Club, showrunner Christina Lee, who most recently wrote and produced for HBO Max’s darkly satirical Search Party, discusses how the Made for Love team were able to connect themes such as the dangers of technological advancement with the story of woman who is essentially trying to escape from a bad marriage:
“In the beginning, we were talking a lot about the role of technology and how it plays into human relationships. Ironically, we were having these discussions pre-2020, and then we entered a year when we were relying almost entirely on technology for our interactions. So we talked about having this shortcut in how we all access and connect, and I heard a lot of people say ‘I just want to Zoom’ or ‘I don’t need to see people.’ I’m not that way. So our conversations were also about how technology is a temporary solution to loneliness; it doesn’t take place of true human connections. It was interesting that it happened before shutdown.
“The other big topic was marriages with different power dynamics. With that, typically women, they’re entering a relationship where at first it may seem exciting to be with a powerful person—but what strings are attached to that and how much do you have to give up to be in a partnership like that? We looked at a lot of famous people and relationships to pick up on clues. It informed a lot of what we wanted to write about.”
Ultimately, Lee hopes viewers see Made For Love as “a sci-fi show approached through a female lens,” she says. “We had female directors like Stephanie Laing, Alethea Jones, and S.J. Clarkson, then there was Alissa and I. We all talked about the sci-fi genre, content we love, but what’s missing from it and how this one can be different.”
READ MORE: Made For Love showrunner Christina Lee on how the show fills a gap in the sci-fi genre (AV Club)
Ahead of Made for Love’s debut on HBO Max, SlashFilm’s Jacob Hall spoke with Lee alongside director Stephanie Laing and writer/executive producer Alissa Nutting, who also wrote the book on which the series is based.
Developing the series was a balancing act between sci-fi worldbuilding and employing romantic comedy tropes, Nutting explains:
“I think with tech and sci-fi, so often there’s an emphasis on avoidance or even eradication of emotion and feeling, or even sensation, that it’s all very serious and stripped down. When you think of robots, you don’t think of laughter. Part of us really wanting to imbue this sci-fi story with emotion and warmth, we felt that humor had to stay a critical part of it.”
Beginning with Hazel’s escape, the first episode drops the viewer directly into the story, an approach that was discovered during the editing process, Lee reveals:
“We had considered several different ways to start the show. What we knew that we wanted was to feel like you’re on a ride right away and that there’s a lot of information coming at you and this is exciting and you’re seeing these different worlds and filling in the holes along the way. With that intention, I think in the editing room we really saw how we wanted to start the show and that sort of informed more of the writing and directing as we went forward because we were able to shoot a few episodes before we shut down for the pandemic. During that time, we went back and said, ‘What’s something we want to see here in the pilot episode that we now have the luxury of thinking of and writing and being able to go back and do that?’”
Filming during a pandemic required more careful planning than ever, but the filmmakers were sure to make time to explore comedic moments. “There’s nothing better than letting something play out, leaving the frame and coming back in and knowing, also, when to move the camera. When not to move the camera. When to sit still and take a breath. It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s very specific,” says Laing, adding:
“We shot-listed every single thing. We didn’t make up anything on the day. We were very prepared going in, because I know with television your time is so limited. Especially shooting during COVID, we did ten hour days. So we had a plan and we really stuck to it. And then we have tremendous actors. I can’t say enough about how much — we filmed something, but then in a wide, Billy or Cristin would improvise something and it’d be amazing and we would sort of run with that. I would set up a shot around something that they did, which was really rewarding and awesome.”
WarnerMedia originally ordered 10 half-hour episodes of the new series, but that number was whittled down to eight because of the challenges of filming during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’d shot a little over four episodes when we shut down on March 13, 2020. I remember that day very well,” Lee recounts in an interview with Rachel Handler for Vulture:
“And then we had the benefit of having that footage to look at, and we learned so much from what our cast did with the characters. And during that time, Alissa and I went back and did so much rewriting. It’s an unusual luxury: ‘Here’s what these characters are teaching us and we want to take them in a different direction.’ And then we got back to shooting in October of 2020. It was anxiety-inducing leading up to it, but once we got there, we were so happy to be shooting, out of our homes, away from our families. It was a blast.”
The book, Lee tells Handler, is very much focused on Hazel’s internal journey, but the rewrites gave them an opportunity to expand all of the characters and their points of view. “One of the biggest changes was Byron. In the book, he comes across as the villain. In casting Billy, the two of us were very deliberate in wanting to understand the vulnerability of the Byron character. As misguided and controlling as he is, he does love his wife,” Lee said.
Ray Romano, in particular, brings a humanity to the role of Hazel’s father that helps ground Made For Love’s more high-concept aspects. “He’s such an incredible dramatic actor,” Nutting comments to Handler:
“The relationship between Herbert and Hazel is a prickly one; they’re both very flawed characters who made mistakes and have failed each other in various ways. I knew it’d be a complicated route, to chart the relationship between two stubborn characters who want, in their heart of hearts, to have a reconciliation and be close, but have already resigned themselves to the fact that it’s never gonna happen. Ray is just capable of giving — he’s so likeable. Even when his character is doing something frustrating, his performance is so meticulous. You always understand his motivation. It was one of those things where, when his name came up, there was this gasp. It’s slightly unexpected but could elevate the role so much.”
Ray’s humanity extends to his synthetic partner, Diane, whom he treats with tender and loving care even as the relationship renders him into the town laughingstock. “We also wanted to make sure that the doll, Diane, wasn’t treated as a joke or a punchline,” says Lee. “That was very important to us; she’s not treated as such in the book, either. That went a long way with the casting of Ray. You see a real relationship there. You see why he’s with Diane, and bringing humanity to that relationship was enhanced by casting Ray.”
“One of the genius things that our director, Stephanie Laing, and then our first AD, Lisa Satriano, did was whenever Diane was in a scene, they would change her head to an eyeline perspective so she seemed to be actively listening in the conversations, whenever they’d cut over to her,” Nutting adds. “It really added this element of feeling that Diane was one of the crew.”
READ MORE: Made For Love’s Creators Talk Translating a Uniquely Weird Book Into Equally Weird TV (Vulture)
Diane’s casting demanded a bespoke solution, Nutting explained in an interview with Kayla Cobb for Decider. “I sat for a face casting so that the doll would be unique to our show and we would own the face, essentially, of Diane,” she told Cobb. “If any objectification is occurring, it’s me, someone who is very game in and down for the process.”
Made for Love’s central, driving question is “How can I be loved?” Nutting said, along with the choices people make to have their needs met:
“I really researched a lot in terms of synthetic partners and people who make the life choice to marry a synthetic partner and all that goes into that. One thing that we really hope comes across in the show is this lens of curiosity rather than judgment, and kind of like a lens of understanding. Every single one of us makes these kinds of decisions in order to get our needs met. All of those decisions and all of those needs come from a really valid place.”
“It was really important for us to not have Diane be like a joke,” Lee emphasized during the interview. “That was both on screen and off screen. She was very much treated like a respected cast member. Probably the only hard night that we had was when we had to use our Diane double, who was not like the high-end doll and her head kept popping off. That was a tough thing.”