Review: Made for Love 2021
The upgrade from Channel 4 cult hit to Netflix blockbuster gave Charlie Brooker’s hit-and-miss dystopia anthology Black Mirror bigger stars, a bigger budget and, most notably, a far bigger audience. The inevitable impact of its pop culture penetration (the phrase “just like a Black Mirror episode” went from niche Twitter joke to common use) was that others would soon follow him into the tech twilight zone but from Amazon’s Upload to AMC’s Soulmates to Netflix’s The One, gimmickry has too often taken precedent and a suffocating smugness over a clever-clever conceit has taken up all of the air otherwise reserved for essentials like insight or substance.
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There’s a similar “sure but what else?” vibe to Made for Love, HBO Max’s new high-concept half-hour comedy, gently coasting on its WTF setup for longer than it should, to the detriment of the main star Cristin Milioti, trying her very best to secure our attention as it slowly drifts elsewhere. It’s vaguely familiar territory for her as well, having starred in one of Black Mirror’s finest episodes, the Star Trek-aping thriller USS Callister, as well as last summer’s time-loop romcom Palm Springs, both projects requiring a similar combination of screwball charm and dark cynicism. She plays Hazel, the wife of the tech titan Byron (Billy Magnussen, also of USS Callister) living a strange life inside of a giant cube that acts as a hi-tech simulation of an ideal world. As Byron’s latest inventions continue to sell on the outside world, the pair exist in isolation, never wanting for anything they don’t already have and never having left in the last 10 years.
But something is wrong and in a jagged narrative flipping between different times in their relationship, we soon discover that Byron’s latest invention has been directly inserted into Hazel without her consent. She has been microchipped so that he can track her every move, every thought, every fear and every orgasm, an invasion built on Byron’s belief that total, unfettered intimacy is the definition of true love. As Hazel figures out the truth, she makes a break for it into a world she barely recognises.
There are influences here that clearly extend back further than Black Mirror (faint echoes of The Stepford Wives sound throughout) but with two stars from that very show in the leads and a similar tonal mix, it’s hard not to view this as just another episode, one that’s been extended to a size it can’t quite justify. There are eight episodes in full but after the four that were made available to critics, a multitude of widening cracks were starting to show and ones that could been easily papered over by less reliance on outsized quirk and more attempts to bring the characters to some semblance of real life. At the heart of the show, although heart is generous, is an extreme version of a relationship that many of us might recognise: a partner in search of control taking advantage of someone in search of validation. In the smallest of moments, when Hazel and Byron aren’t cast as chess pawns on a board, we can see some truth, how obsessive attention can go from flattering to frightening and how overwhelming luxury can become overbearing.
But the show, based on a book by Alissa Nutting, has so far at least, failed to give us enough to ground the relationship at its centre. Byron is such an extreme character whose obnoxious eccentricities were made overly apparent from the couple’s very first date, that we don’t really understand why a decade later, Hazel is surprised by his desire to track her like an animal. The dizzying structure, hopping back and forth throughout the timeline of their relationship, is more flashy distraction than anything else and within 30-minute episodes, it unmoors us from the action, never staying put long enough for us to understand or care about the world that’s been created. But while the wackiness gets exasperating fast, Milioti works overtime to keep us invested. The script could afford her some sharper dialogue for sure, but she’s as unrelenting as the pace: running, shooting and stealing her way into a better life that’s even better than the better life she thought she was running toward, a small town girl returning to her impoverished home to escape her rich, technologically abusive husband (more echoes of Sleeping with the Enemy sounding as well). Magnussen is as cartoonish as his character while there are small, sparky opportunities for Patti Harrison as Hazel’s old friend and Noma Dumezweni as Byron’s right-hand woman, that are hopefully expanded in future episodes.
Milioti just about us gives us enough of a reason to click on to the next episode, as does the odd well-observed kernel of romantic truth, but Made for Love doesn’t quite have the makings of a hit just yet.