The problem with satirizing Silicon Valley is that the tech industry moves so fast and breaks so many things that it’s impossible for filmmakers to keep up. You can quickly verify this by rewatching The Social Network: Received back in 2010 as a withering portrait of Facebook, the movie suggests that the company’s fatal flaw has to do with misunderstanding the nature of friendship, which doesn’t hit quite as hard now that they’ve moved on to facilitating both QAnon and genocide. (Similarly, compare Silicon Valley’s 2014 pilot, which promised a light comedy about nerds with more money than sense, to its 2019 finale, in which the main characters almost destroy civilization.) You just can’t outrun those guys, but as HBO Max’s funny and surprising new show Made for Love demonstrates, if you aren’t trying to craft the definitive statement about humanity’s relationship with technology, you can get in some good laughs along the way.
Made for Love, an adaptation of Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel, stars Palm Springs’ Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green, a woman who has spent the last 10 years trapped inside a technological dystopia called the Hub, a partly virtual tech-campus-meets-residence built by her control-freak husband Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). After escaping, Hazel discovers to her horror that her husband has planted a surveillance chip inside her brain without her knowledge, allowing him to monitor her vital signs and see and hear what she is seeing and hearing at any time. Adding insult to surveillance chip, Gogol has done this to her as part of a product launch, for a tool that will allow couples to communicate more honestly by taking away all of their privacy. He claims not to see a downside to this kind of radical honesty—this is a man who makes his wife rate her orgasms with a detailed rubric—but he doesn’t have the chip put into his own brain. Gogol is clueless enough about his wife’s desires that he’s more baffled than angry when she makes her escape. Like so many tech barons before him, though, he soon realizes that his attempt to disrupt communication has led him to invent an ideal tool for stalkers, and he begins obsessively watching as Hazel attempts to rebuild her life. That’s a premise that could easily power a horror movie, but Made for Love plays it as dark comedy, with Hazel going so far as to take a job cleaning the bathrooms at a bowling alley—and really going to town on the urinals—to dissuade Gogol from watching her.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Patti Harrison as one of Hazel’s dirtbag friends from before her marriage and Caleb Foote as an eager up-and-comer at Gogol’s company, which shares Gogol’s name. Better still, there’s Veep’s Dan Bakkedahl in the role he was born to play: a seedy fixer who, after an unfortunate encounter with an ax early on in the series, spends much of the rest of the show optimistically carrying his severed fingers around in a cooler. And then there is Ray Romano as Hazel’s widowed father, somehow managing to come across as a decent guy despite the fact that his character is playing house with a life-size sex doll and the entire town knows it. “Have you ever thought of just lowering your standards in terms of general happiness?” Romano asks his daughter, and it’s a testament to his bottomless avuncular charm that that still seems like good advice, even when he delivers it standing next to his dead-eyed mannequin.
There are two ways a show with this structure could go off the rails: by making Gogol’s world so absurd that the sharp edges disappear from the true-to-life creepiness of his obsession with optimizing everything, or by leaning too far into the local eccentrics in Hazel’s hometown and becoming a heartwarming parade of caricatures. There are moments when you can feel the tug of one or the other of those poles, but the filmmakers never fully succumb to either temptation. That turns out to be key to Made for Love’s success, because the show’s tricky, downbeat season finale would never land if the audience was expecting humanism. In fact, the show is a pretty good test case to see how far TV can get relying mostly on tone and performance. It’s not particularly visually striking, it doesn’t have the most tightly-constructed plot—a thread about Hazel having her consciousness “merged” with her husband’s takes up a lot of show’s first half before being abruptly dropped—and the fewer questions you ask about which parts of the Hub are real and which are virtual, the happier we’ll all be. If you can overlook a few flaws, though, Made for Love has a lot to offer. If you can’t overlook a few flaws, maybe you can use virtual reality to construct a utopian society where they make better television. Just run it by your spouse first, OK?
In my decade at Slate, I’ve worked on everything from investigating how wearing your backpack with two straps became cooler than wearing it with one strap to adapting The Great Gatsby as a video game to inventing a highly scientific systemic for determining whether new movies are too scary for you. The support of Slate Plus members has allowed us to continue to do the kind of ambitious, irreverent, and service-y cultural coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Thank you! —Forrest Wickman, culture editor