Review by James Lindorf
A year ago, people questioned if adding limited access to various brands and properties owned by parent company AT&T would be enough to take HBO from a premium TV add-on to an elite streaming service. One pandemic later and primarily fueled by the day and date release of all 2021 Warner Bros. films, HBO Max has already netted 42 million US subscribers. A number the streamer didn’t expect to hit for two more years. However, getting subscribers and keeping them are two different tasks. The exclusive access to big-time movies and older properties like “Friends” will bring viewers in, but it is up to new content like the dark comedy “Made For Love” to keep their attention.
Star Cristin Milioti has been trying to shed the “she played the mom on How I Met Your Mother” tag for nearly a decade. Despite a terrific appearance on “Black Mirror” and another in the underrated movie “Palm Springs,” that tag is still the easiest way to remind many people of who you’re talking about. That may be about to change now that she has her own high concept mildly sci-fi series, “Made For Love,” which premiered on HBO Max on April 1st. Based on the Alissa Nutting 2017 novel of the same name, Milioti is Hazel, the bored wife of billionaire tech mogul Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). The series opens with an ad for Gogol’s latest breakthrough; a relationship cure-all called Made For Love; the device promises to unite two minds as one. One hard cut later, we see Hazel recreating the end of “Shawshank Redemption” and emerging from a hole in the ground, soaking wet and gasping for air. With a laugh, a sigh, and an aggressively aimed middle finger, she stumbles off barefoot into the desert with an anyplace but here mindset.
TV shows and movies opening in the middle of the story without explanation is nothing new. Plenty of screenwriters live by the adage that your script has to grab its reader in the first few pages, or you risk losing your audience for good. There is no easier way to do that than to show the audience a bit of the action/horror/drama to come. Then you spend an undefined amount of time building up to the chaos. “Made For Love” decided the right time is now and has no intentions of making you wait. After Hazel’s daring escape, they flashback a mere 24 hours. Hazel and Byron are in bed for an effective; Hazel has her 3,248th orgasm, but passionless and most definitely scheduled bit of coitus. Ever since they got married ten years ago on their first date the couple has lived and stayed exclusively at the Gogol Hub where AI controls and monitors every minute of your life. Unlike Hazel, Byron sees no reason to ever leave. They can have anything they desire delivered, and thanks to virtual reality, their living room can become Paris with a snap of their fingers. Hazel is growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of control over her own life, and when she discovers that Byron secretly implanted the Made For Love chip in her head, it is the last straw.
The flashback is intercut with scenes of Hazel on the run from the main Gogol goon Herringbone (Dan Bakkedahl), who keeps showing up like a great 80’s slasher. While the mystery of what sent Hazel running for the hills is revealed in the first episode, that isn’t the end of the flashbacks. Going forward, they are used to provide more detail on their relationship and all the other times Hazel should have called it quits. Once she flees, Hazel seeks refuge in her desert hometown with her aging father Herbert (Ray Romano) and his synthetic partner. It is a real “Lars and the Real Girl” situation, and what is silly on the surface turns tragic when you learn it is all a response to the trauma around losing his wife.
The star of the show is its cast. Milioti is sweet and charming, which is typically reflected in her performance, but she goes against type with Hazel. After ten years of subjugation in Byron’s tech palace, Hazel is frantic, sardonic, and flat-out dangerous. In just the first episode, Milioti has some of the best smiles while screaming on the inside moments that you’ve ever seen. She is just as good in the over-the-top scenes as well, like the one that leaves her wielding an ax in a strip club. Magnussen is a good blend of charming and creepy, exaggerating the traits of people he was modeled after like Musk, Zuckerburg, and Bezos. The constant thinly veiled commentary on society’s attachment to technology and its creators’ deification are cheap fun like a dad joke.
“Made For Love” is a comedy, but the humor is found mainly in its situations and its characterizations more than in what you would typically think of as jokes. The level of absurdity that they ask you to accept maybe too much for some viewers. But because of Milioti’s charisma and Romano’s charm, I will be like Byron and stalk this show until it’s all over.“Made For Love” is one in the long string of excellent shows for the streaming service that will keep subscribers around and continue to prove it’s not just TV. It’s HBO. Three episodes are currently available to stream, with three more releasing on April 8th, and the final two set to come out on the 15th.
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