Cristin Milioti Is Not ‘Made for Love’ in HBO Max’s Entertainingly Surreal Bad Romance

As technology advances it begins to morph our old paranoias about love and finding the perfect mate. HBO Max’s “Made for Love” is the latest dose of dystopian romance, where a fairy tale marriage is but a digital illusion. Some of it can feel like another been there, done that routine. But we don’t mind because Cristin Milioti delivers a lot of terrified charm. Watching her try to run from a bad romance in this show has a thrillingly dark, hilarious effect because she’s playing to full realism. Her character is not aware she’s in some wild sci-fi premise. Instead she perfectly evokes how any of us would feel waking up in this plot.

Milioti plays Hazel Green, who we first see emerging from some underground piping system in a desert landscape. Hazel is on the run and we soon discover from what. She is the wife of a chiseled tech billionaire, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), who always has perfect hair and boasts about only sleeping two hours a day because he’s so busy inventing things to stay a billionaire. Gogol’s latest idea is a chip, dubbed “Made for Love,” which is implanted into the brains of a couple so they can be “in sync.” The wacky theory here is that such an arrangement will prevent couples from fighting, misunderstanding each other or getting jealous. Basically what everyone dreams about finding but never does. Gogol doesn’t necessarily believe in consent and has Hazel implanted with the chip without her knowledge. Already unhappy in their marriage, Hazel flees their lush home. Now on the run, with Gogol’s henchmen after her, Hazel reconnects with her father, a widower named Herbert (Ray Romano), who now lives with a sex doll. He joins her as a fugitive but Gogol is determined to get his wife back, and it’s not hard to find her because he can see everything through her eyes thanks to the chip implant.

Devoted TV bingers will instantly recognize elements in “Made for Love” from other recent shows dealing with tech paranoia. The trend truly began with the success of Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror,” which has pioneered how to pull off strange, unnerving TV by imagining incredibly plausible digital futures. The trick is not overdoing the special effects and making it more about the characters. Milioti also starred in one of Brooker’s award-winning entries from his show, “USS Callister.” While that was a riff on “Star Trek” culture, in this new series adapted from a novel by Alissa Nutting, Milioti is tasked with carrying the whole enterprise. Much of it is due to the fact that the plot’s a bit thin. Instead of really basking in the futurist world of “Made for Love,” the narrative is more of a chase. The structure zig-zags between Hazel’s attempts to get away, from hitching rides with Mexican radio DJs to hiding out in a bar, and flashbacks explaining how the marriage to Gogol went so wrong. Real comedic relief comes from Herbert, who is the quintessential failed parent. It takes a few episodes to unmask more painful details about how Hazel’s mother passed away, but Herbert is an endearingly pitiful character. He fights loneliness with a sex doll and admits he sold away his small airplane, but now he will try to win it back so Hazel has a better chance of escaping.

As a showcase of Milioti’s talent the writing lets her also swerve between terror and humor. Both come across well in the present chase and the flashbacks. Sometimes the flashbacks can be the more intriguing moments. Hazel and Gogol’s home is a pristine fantasy of cold success, the kind of home people move out to Los Angeles desperate to afford. But because Gogol is a tech genius the sky isn’t always real, sometimes the clouds are digital projections. There’s a possibly fake dolphin constantly swimming in the pool, and a computer monitoring system assesses just how authentic Hazel’s orgasms are during sex. The chip implant drives home some of the story’s hidden, darkly funny metaphors about abusive or controlling relationships. Wouldn’t we always like to know what our partner is thinking? Maybe not. Gogol himself doesn’t realize the traps he’s laid for himself, like when Hazel tortures his ego by convincing another man to masturbate in front of her, so Gogol can see it through the chip’s signal. Milioti is great, dark fun in these moments, switching from entrapped and innocent to a smart personality who knows when to take control. 

“Made for Love” doesn’t get too caught up in the usual millennial hang-ups we tend to see in TV shows dealing with loneliness and the headaches of finding love in our incredibly atomized world. It has more fun with its nightmare about how digital tech will soon give someone powerful enough the full ability to get into your brain. It has much in common with another great “Black Mirror” episode titled “The Entire History of You,” where people in the future can record everything through eye implants, making it easy to simply rewind a memory or moment. When a husband suspects his wife is cheating it turns into the kind of vicious tale “Made for Love” should have aspired more towards. But nonetheless it still delivers a funny speculative package. Milioti is the highlight and this is another nice win for the actor after the success of “Palm Springs.” Like much good twisted sci-fi, “Made for Love” personifies everyday frustrations like wanting to know what your significant other is thinking, and reminds us it’s best to continue not even trying to find out.

Made for Love” season one premieres April 1 with new episodes streaming Thursdays on HBO Max.