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Cristin Milioti helps make Made for Love's implausibility plausible

  • "Made for Love is hardly subtle, and its cautionary tech tale has been told repeatedly in Black Mirror and elsewhere," says James Poniewozik of the HBO Max black comedy, based on Alissa Nutting's 2017 novel of the same name. "But it’s playful and funny and almost momentum-driven enough to get away with hand-waving away its many implausibilities. Among those is the question of why Hazel, presented as a wily, resourceful skeptic, would have been swept off her feet by Byron, who from their first meeting throws up enough red flags for a giant slalom course. The casting helps put this over. Milioti, with her charm and anime eyes, is an almost too-perfect rom-com-lead type. (She broke out on TV as the title figure in How I Met Your Mother.) But she smartly plays against that type in stories that subvert expectations. Her Hazel is cunning, feral and sardonic on the lam; in flashbacks to her married life in the Hub, you can almost hear her scream behind her 10,000-watt smile."


    • Finally, Cristin Milioti gets a Milioti-centric show: "We need to talk about Cristin Milioti," says Daniel Fienberg. "In one project after another, the actress has built a résumé of roles that require her to both embrace a certain heightened absurdity and ground the emotional stakes of the world her character is inhabiting. She's what holds together the second season of Fargo, the 'USS Callister' episode of Black Mirror and Hulu breakout Palm Springs, but for the purposes of major awards, she's consistently been overlooked in favor of male co-stars. Even going back to the closing run of How I Met Your Mother, very few actresses have as frequently gravitated toward oddball productions that, in retrospect, wouldn't have been nearly as funny or had nearly the emotional clout without them. We need to talk about Cristin Milioti. Fortunately, her latest project, the HBO Max dark comedy Made for Love, is probably her most Milioti-centric vehicle yet."
    • It's tough to shake that we've seen this all before, such as in Paul Rudd's Living With Yourself: "As great as the cast is...throughout Made for Love’s first half you may find yourself wishing the show would make you feel more of … something, an ironic shortcoming for a series that’s subtextually championing the concept of genuine, organic emotion," says Jen Chaney. "Made for Love is decently made and certainly watchable, but as with the in medias res opening, nonlinear storytelling, and well-covered themes about tech that goes too far, it’s tough to shake the sense that we have seen this show before. The potential for that to change in the second half of the season is definitely there, though, so consider this review a response to Made for Love, but one that’s still in beta testing."
    • Made for Love manages to do what so much satire does not and out-weird its own subject, and with it our expectations: Milioti made headlines last year for starring in Palm Spring, another sci-fi comedy set in the desert. "For all their similarities, though, Palm Springs and Made for Love have opposite takes on the intersection of science and romance," says Alison Herman. "In Palm Springs, messing with the natural order of things—first by accident, then by design—brings its heroes together. In Made for Love, optimizing amore is a recipe for disaster. The current TV market for tech dystopia is largely cornered by Black Mirror. Milioti would know; she headlined the show’s 'U.S.S. Callister,' a feature-length, Emmy-winning exploration of toxic nerd culture disguised as a Star Trek spoof. (She played Nanette, a computer programmer trapped in a video game by her creepy boss.) But while Made for Love has some obvious connections to Milioti’s prior work, it also has something they don’t: the twisted, anarchic voice of Alissa Nutting, the novelist behind the 2017 book of the same name. Lewd, outrageous, and deliriously inventive, Nutting’s prose makes it hard to imagine anyone else capturing her voice, writers’ rooms included. Her first novel, Tampa, follows a Florida middle school teacher who routinely has sex with her male students; it’s at once an obvious commentary on the monstrosity we overlook in beautiful young women and a book you’ll feel guilty being seen with in public....In a still-rare, if increasingly common, move for a TV adaptation, Nutting was deeply involved in the process of bringing Made for Love to HBO Max. In addition to serving as executive producer, Nutting also has full or partial script credit on four of the season’s 10 episodes, taking an active hand alongside writer-producer Patrick Somerville and showrunner Christina Lee...Nutting’s work on the show makes it less surprising, though still remarkable, that the final product reflects the novel’s singular strangeness."
    • Made for Love coasts on its WTF setup longer than it should: "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," says Benjamin Lee. "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. 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."
    • Made for Love is a show about how it would be absolute hell to divorce Mark Zuckerberg: "Under the comedic guise of a love story gone wrong, Made for Love examines the tech world sideways, undercutting the narratives of men in power by laughing at them," says Joshua Rivera. "It is conceivable, for example, that a man like Byron exists in the real world. It’s also conceivable that this theoretical man would, like Byron in the premiere, create an obnoxious app that badgers their sexual partners to rate and review their last orgasm, as if sex is a problem that could be solved with some lessons taken from UX design. Maybe that’s a system that works fine between consenting adults who know what they’re getting into, but as a scalable standard? It’s laughable. And cartoonish men like Byron, who uses his power to project his quirks (like a hatred of smells and a dislike for eating) onto the world at large — deserve to be laughed at."
    • Made for Love shows the danger of teasing the story's end too soon: "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," says Caroline Framke. "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."
    • Made for Love has mysteries within mysteries, and they unfold in ways that are alternately exciting, astounding, and creepy: "Milioti is the clear standout among an already impressive cast. Even when the deliberately scattered storytelling wears a little thin, she holds our attention with no trouble," says Vivian Kane, adding: "Based on the four episodes available for review, the series’ biggest downfall is its pacing. The nonlinear structure takes too long to answer some of its most pressing questions, especially the question of why Hazel married Byron in the first place, given that he is as unlikeable as he is rich. Even after that question was answered, I’m still waiting to figure out why she stayed for 10 insufferable years with a man who literally makes her log and rate her orgasms. Still, the outstanding cast gives us more than enough reason to keep coming back for those answers and makes Made for Love a solid installment in the techno-dystopic rom-com caper genre."
    • Made for Love's dialogue is great, but the show is very much toned down from Nutting's novel: "The dialogue in Made for Love is great—funny, distinctive and observant about the way tech euphemisms can invade the physical world and change the way we think," says Judy Berman. "For that, we can probably thank the author of the 2017 novel that the show is based on, Alissa Nutting, who is also a co-creator, executive producer and writer of this adaptation. Her books are populated by very strange people whose deviant appetites range from relatively harmless to repugnant, predatory and illegal; the teacher who narrates her controversial first novel, Tampa, is a contemporary female Humbert Humbert, grooming and seducing the boys in her junior-high class. Though certain aspects of Nutting’s storytelling seem ideally suited to TV—the distinctive characters, the topical premises, the black comedy—others, like the psychologically rich first-person and close third-person perspectives that make her fiction so thrillingly transgressive, present big challenges. That may explain why, in the four episodes provided for review, HBO Max’s Made for Love feels a bit duller than the sharp-edged critiques of tech culture and heterosexual romance in the book. Nutting and showrunner Christina Lee (Search Party) have changed the book considerably, eliminating major characters and adding minor ones (including the delightful Patti Harrison as an aggrieved former friend of Hazel’s), toning down various scenes of physical grossness and taking advantage of the television medium with faux Gogol Industries ads. The actors look significantly more attractive than the people described in the book."
    • Made for Love never manages to ascend beyond something more than conventional buddies-on-the-run comedy: The show is watchable, but it's mostly forgettable, says Melanie McFarland. "For all that it purports to say and do (and despite potentially triggering aspects of Hazel's great escape) the story comes off as a standard narrative about our inability to outrun the choices we've programmed into our lives, realized as a succession of road trip legs," she says. "Beyond this isn't much profundity save whatever meaning we assign to the people navigating it, which gives it about the heft of a cinematic or a sim. And that's a fine distraction for a week or two, but not worth any long-term emotional commitment."
    • Made For Love mirrors your abusive relationship with your phone: "Technology manipulates us, exploits us and even harms us, but we love it. We're in an abusive relationship, but we just can't break up with our gadgets," says Richard Trenholm. "That's the warning of Made For Love, a new black comedy streaming on HBO Max." He adds: "Just because characters keep pointing out that the idea of a chip in her head is contrived doesn't make it any less contrived. But the chip works as a metaphor for controlling and emotionally abusive relationships, as Gogol literally lives rent-free in Hazel's head even when she tries to break free. It's a dark warning of the ways technology can be used to facilitate emotional abuse and domestic violence, whether it's for stalking, controlling a spouse's life or finding someone who's escaped a harmful relationship."
    • Made for Love is cheekily bewitching, both sardonic and deeply disturbing, because intimacy is also about feeling safe
    • Made for Love feels disappointingly familiar -- but Milioti is worth hanging on for
    • Punctuated by biting jokes, Made for Love would never work without its fine central performances
    • How Alissa Nutting’s uniquely weird 2017 absurdist sci-fi-satire novel Made for Love was translated into an equally weird TV show
    • Nutting sees Made for Love as a "problematic tribute" to tech: Not only would Nutting willingly put a chip in her brain, she says she has an Amazon Echo in every room of her house. "I love technology because I love convenience and laziness because it's the closest I get to feeling like magic," she says. "Technology like every other human created thing really comes from these core universal emotional needs, in Byron's case just to be loved," Nutting argues. "That's something that Hazel struggles with, that's something that the show's really about. How do we struggle with that? What choices do we make? What imperfect solutions do all of us adopt to feel loved in an imperfect world and in imperfect relationships?"
    • Made for Love wanted to tell a sci-fi story through a female lens: “I think the big difference there with what that means, ‘using a female lens,’ is that while the sci-fi aspect of it is the backdrop and is what’s exciting about it, ultimately what this show is about is relationships and a woman’s journey in finding her identity and exploring intimacy," says executive producer Christina Lee. "Those were the kinds of things that we really wanted to dig into.”
    • Cristin Milioti likes to pursue iffy choices: "On set or onstage, she will throw herself into the scrappiest, spikiest, ugliest facets of any part, without ego or undue seriousness. (She is known for punctuating somber moments with fart noises or a pirate’s hook briefly liberated from the props department.)," says Alexis Soloski in a New York Times profile of the actress. After Milioti's time on How I Met Your Met Mother and the short-lived NBC comedy A to Z, Milioti had the financial security to maneuver back toward roles that didn’t make her feel like what she described as “an unwitting foot soldier of the patriarchy.” She wanted parts that let her touch “the weirdness and the wildness and the inner forests” of human nature, she said. Parts that let her communicate the essential strangeness of behaving like a person, especially a female person; parts where she never has to apologize for a character’s sharp angles and iffy choices.
    • To prepare for her role, Milioti watched interviews with women she declined to identify but felt might be in similar circumstances: “I don’t want to name them, because I don’t know what their reality is — but they are people who I always wondered if they were trapped in something that maybe to the world seemed perfect,” Milioti says. “Maybe it seemed like a princess story, seemed like a dream to have this charismatic person swoop in and give you the life that all of us always dream of.”
    • Why Made for Love cast Cristin Milioti, Ray Romano and Billy Magnussen: "I really loved Cristin’s dramatic work so much in Black Mirror and Fargo, and I knew she had the comedy chops from How I Met Your Mother," says Nutting. "Then, all of her stage work… there’s nothing she can’t do. Hazel is a character who, at times, can be frustrating and very complicated. We knew we needed an actor who had a certain amount of vulnerability, where even when they were making choices that kind of infuriated you, you were still understanding them even if you weren’t approving them. You can extend sympathy and empathy even if you felt like they were doing the wrong thing or were experiencing a pretty deserved consequence." Executive producer Christina Lee adds: "With Billy, again, we were fans of his before we started working with him, but what was really important to us was to have a villain-type character that you can empathize with. That’s so much of what Billy brought to the character. It’s too easy to have someone that you just hate or is evil. We thought it was interesting to see somebody who is those things, but also truly loves his wife and wants her back and is doing all of that in a misguided way. The vulnerability Billy brought to the character was very helpful in shaping the character. With both Cristin and Billy, we went back and rewrote during our pandemic shutdown based on things we had learned from them. And then Ray, we call him No-Bad-Takes-Ray!"

    TOPICS: Made for Love, HBO Max, Alissa Nutting, Billy Magnussen, Christina Lee, Cristin Milioti, Ray Romano