Made for Love is weird, funny, dark, and also deeply relatable—which is perhaps an unexpected thing to say about a show that boasts both a dolphin and a sex doll in its main cast of characters.
Ten years ago Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti), who was a small-time con-artist from a broken home, went on a date with billionaire tech mogul Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), where he wooed her with a virtual reality cube of an Italian restaurant. The experience was so intoxicatingly surreal and flattering that she agreed to marry him on the spot. Since then, they’ve never left The Hub, the isolated, futuristic campus for Gogol technologies, which is made up of a series of reality pods that range from a laboratory to their idyllic looking (but constantly monitored) home to the open grassland where uncooperative employees are “put out to pasture.” Byron has no desire to leave the Hub, where they can virtually experience almost anything and everything they want. In fact, he hates the outside world, where he has to deal with unpredictability, other people, and smells (the Hub is smell-free). Inside the Hub, everything, including (and especially) Hazel herself, can be monitored and controlled to his liking. Hazel must stick to a strict diet and daily routine, which includes a daily nap, whether she’s tired or not. She’s required to rate her morning orgasms, (which are filmed) based on several criteria. Byron insists he’s only interested in her pleasure, and doesn’t need to have sex or orgasms, but, of course, this is just another means of exerting his power while making her vulnerable. My favorite visual metaphor for their marriage is their wedding rings—a lowercase g turned sideways so it slides over two fingers, which looks suspiciously like tiny handcuffs.
Although Hazel keeps up the facade of a loving Stepford-esque wife, when Byron’s back is turned her mask slips, showing how much she chafes at her gilded cage. Plus, she really misses drinking beer. Things start getting strange when, at a party for the board members, Byron whispers in her ear that he knows she’s been lying to him. Then he announces that he and Hazel will be the first users of a new technology called Made for Love, where couples get chips implanted in their brains so that they can see and feel everything together. There are two problems with this plan: 1. It’s a terrible plan. 2. The technology isn’t finished and, when two people are synced, one of them dies. A minor snag. So, as you can see, Byron is a real catch. No, actually, I want to be clear that I don’t think the series sees him as a total villain, which I’m not sure how I feel about, because he kind of should be a total villain. He’s entirely misguided, often cruel, and extremely controlling, but there are moments later in the series where they give him genuine vulnerability and he expresses what he thinks is real love for Hazel. But that doesn’t mean he’s not an abusive, manipulative, self-centered fuckhead, and I’m not yet convinced we should have empathy for him.
Byron wanting to sync their brains is the last straw for Hazel, who gathers all the gentle-voiced, red-eyed monitoring devices, which are shaped like brass hens, into a sheet, wraps it around her neck, and then plunges into the swimming pool. This would likely be the end of her if not for Zelda, a dolphin who has a Made for Love chip in her brain, supposedly so they can learn more about animal behavior, but really so Byron can get closer to being able to link himself and Hazel and finally fully absorb her into himself. To be clear: That’s not love, folks. That’s possession. Anyway, Zelda shows Hazel a way out of the th Hub and she emerges, sputtering and wide-eyed into the middle of the desert. (Cristin Milioti is absolutely the only person who could have played this role, and she is fantastic as she slides from wide grins to dead-eyed sadness to sparking anger to animalistic fear.) She greedily sucks in the outside air and waves down the first car that passes, ecstatic to be getting away from the Hub. Soon enough though, she learns that escaping won’t be so easy because Byron has already had the chip implanted in her brain, meaning that he can monitor what she sees, feels, and hears at all times. He thinks it’s the answer to everything and will bring them closer than ever. She’s fucking livid and terrified. There’s just so much there about who gets to make decisions about what happens to women’s bodies—what goes into them and what can be taken out of them and who makes decisions about what “lives” inside them.
With nowhere to go, Hazel returns home to her “shithole” town and her father Herbert (Ray Romano) with whom she has strained relationship. He pretty much checked out after her mother died of cancer, getting drunk and ignoring Hazel instead of parenting. She blames him in part for her being so willing to run away with Byron. He, on the other hand, listens to her story and wonders if she doesn’t need to “lower her standards” and “give the guy a break” because she’s “a handful.” This is perhaps the darkest, funniest, and most relatable line in the entire series. Byron has LITERALLY kept her in the middle of the desert for ten years and IMPLANTED A CHIP in her brain without her consent. He wants to mind meld them (also without her consent), which will likely KILL HER. And he is now tracking her using all forms of technology. As she is walking down a street, car alarms start blaring and then a random man proffers his cell phone, saying it’s Byron calling for her, but OF COURSE she should just NOT BE QUITE SO PICKY and things will be JUST FINE!! I mean, you can imagine someone actually saying this to a woman in exactly this situation, right? But back to Herbert, who is in a newish and highly controversial relationship with a Synthetic Partner named Diane, which has earned him the nickname Herb the Perv around town. It’s a very rare show that doesn’t treat a sex doll as a punching bag or a punchline, but this one doesn’t. Herbert’s love for Diane and his reasons for choosing her over a living breathing partner are earnest and human and sometimes deeply frustrating to watch play out, but they’re never pitched as deviant or perverse.
So, there you have the basic parameters under which Hazel tries to reclaim her life, such as it was, and regain some agency from Byron. (There’s also an investigative nun, a homemade airplane, a woman named Ma Voss and her sons, and a scene with erotic yeast, but I don’t want to give everything away.)
I’m not a huge consumer of sci-fi, but I’ve watched enough to know that it’s usually told from a male perspective, so it’s interesting to see all the elements of technology and surveillance from the perspective of women. The series is based on Alissa Nutting’s novel by the same name, which she adapted for television. Made for Love is by no means a screed against technology, but it does raise a lot of questions about who is in control of it and through whose gaze we’re seeing things. When Hazel chose to go live with Byron in the Hub, she only saw the glittery perks and ease of living with a handsome tech billionaire who just wanted to please her, but she clearly didn’t read the proverbial user agreement, because there are always downsides and caveats to a situation like that. And, I don’t know, even though the idea of a chip that would allow your partner to see all your thoughts is dystopian and horrifying, I think there’s a small part of all of us that have at least momentarily wished for that window into someone else’s soul. You could see people in an imperfect relationship thinking that it’s the way to fix what’s broken. A shortcut on the difficult road to real communication. A way around real vulnerability and honesty. You can definitely see someone like Byron thinking he’s found the solution instead of having created a whole mass of new problems.
I avoided watching Made for Love until just days before the second season dropped because I thought it would be too cynical and derisive, but I was extremely wrong. Yes, it’s got a dark streak running through it like a vein of coal, but the series is very much about the basic human longing for love, connection, vulnerability, and understanding. The nuance and care that they bring to Hazel and Herbert’s discussions of their fractured relationship is breathtaking—two very imperfect and broken people still trying to care for each as best they can. And it’s wickedly funny. There is, of course, an obvious parallel between Hazel and Diane—they are both easily controlled vessels for a man’s feelings without agency of their own—but what the series chooses to do with that shows tenderness, understanding, and, most of all, an unexpected way for Hazel to reclaim her sense of self. Though at the same time, hoo boy, let’s not ignore the utterly problematic side of choosing a sex doll, not matter how much he might respect her, over an actual imperfect, messy, unpredictable person as a partner. I mean, the choice to have utter control over your partner is real and a real, real problem.
There were some times in Made for Love where I felt like the story kind of got a little tangled or lost in itself for a bit, but never ever so much so or for so long that I didn’t want to keep going. And then, the first season closes with an ending that you’ll likely feel like a knife twisting in your chest.