About one (1) minute into “Made For Love,” the jig is up. After an idyllic ad for a relationship cure-all (also called “Made For Love”), featuring married couple Hazel (Cristin Milioti) and Byron (Billy Magnussen) walking toward each other and the camera with beatific smiles, there’s a hard cut to Hazel emerging from a hole in the ground, soaking wet and gasping for air. Once she squeezes herself out, she looks around at the dusty desert surrounding her and heaves a huge sigh and laugh of pure relief. She glances back at an enormous white building in the far distance, sticks her middle finger at it with such concentrated hostility that it practically vibrates, and stumbles away as fast as her bare feet can take her.
….and then we flash “24 Hours Earlier” to Hazel and Byron in bed, ensconced within that mysterious building and all its many amenities, the clock officially ticking towards Hazel’s eventual escape.
TV shows opening “in medias res” — or right in the middle of the story without explanation — are nothing new, especially since an age-old piece of screenwriting advice is to make sure a script grabs a reader in the first few pages lest they lose their audience for good. As fans of “Breaking Bad” and “Alias” know, teasing a chaotic future in that way can, sometimes, make for an extremely effective storytelling device. But so many shows are now defaulting to this method of jolting things into immediate action that very few of them end up justifying the choice. Instead, they unnecessarily complicate their narratives in the hopes that the wrinkles will be interesting enough to grab your attention. Whether or not they deserve to keep that attention is, however, another question entirely. From its disorienting opening onward, “Made For Love” struggles to maintain this balancing act enough that the gambit hardly seems worth it.
The first episode, which screened at the South by Southwest Festival on March 17 before its April 1 premiere on HBO Max, flashes between Hazel’s eerily controlled life in “the Cube” and her frantic run away from it. Neither Hazel nor Byron has left the Cube in ten years, a fact that Byron, a megalomaniac tech mogul evoking some unholy combination of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, considers a triumph of optimal living. Why go anywhere else, he reasons, when he has employees — played by Noma Dumezweni, Caleb Foote and Dan Bakkedahl — who will attend to their every need, and the Cube can transform itself into looking like any location they can dream of? Plus, as we learn in our very first view of the Cube, Byron’s technology is capable of measuring the wants and needs of every living creature around him, from Hazel to the dolphin swimming back and forth across their swimming pool. Hazel can’t play a video game without it pausing to take a survey on her latest orgasm, her mood afterwards, and whether or not there’s anything Byron can do to improve his performance. (“Made For Love” is based on a novel by Alissa Nutting, who also co-writes and produces the show, but will inevitably get “Black Mirror” comparisons for its depiction of invasive “performance enhancing” tech.)
It’s certainly a creepy setup, especially when Magnussen deploys a perfectly blank-eyed smile with just about every line that only barely masks Byron’s restless, simmering anger. Milioti is similarly deft in her performance as a woman only barely hanging on as she withstands a marriage she can’t stand, no matter what the data might be telling her obsessive, controlling husband. But the pilot episode immediately gives so much away about her mindset and future that it saps the story of its intrinsic pressure.
The next three episodes available to critics fare slightly better if only because they have the benefit of not telling the story of that one day. Instead, they alternate between Hazel fighting like hell to get away from Byron, whose far-reaching technology makes that just about impossible, and the past that led her to him in the first place. Hazel getting back to her dirtbag roots and wayward father (Ray Romano) lets both the character and Milioti explore what actually makes Hazel tick beyond what Byron’s finely tuned algorithm says, though still in fits and starts. The series benefits once it get untangled from the broader complications of What Technology Could Do To Humanity and focuses more on Hazel and the constant dread she faces at trying to outpace her abusive husband. The fourth episode (“I Want a New Life”), for instance, is the sharpest chapter for finally giving Hazel a real backstory and a very funny childhood friend (played by perpetual scene-stealer Patti Harrison).
It’s hard not to imagine what “Made For Love” might have looked like had it just trusted itself to unfold chronologically. If the series had let the slow then sudden collapse of Hazel’s idyllic life fuel its tension, would it be more effective than just bursting everything open from the outset and letting chaos reign? Maybe a more patient approach might have alienated a few fans, but it also could have made for an appropriately disturbing way in to what is, at its heart, a deeply chilling story.
“Made For Love” premieres Thursday, April 1 on HBO Max.
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