The following contains spoilers for Made for Love S1E1, “User One” (written by Alissa Nutting & Dean Bakopoulos & Patrick Somerville and directed by Stephanie Laing)
Like the first line of a novel, the opening scene of a pilot can really set the tone and hook you in. Made for Love opens on a wind-blown desert, with Joshua trees in the foreground and a gleaming cubical structure in the background. A tumbleweed bounces by.
Out of nowhere, a trap door opens in the sand, regurgitating a splash of water and a woman in a party dress. She coughs and gasps for air, a smile creeping in at surviving whatever ordeal she’s just gone through to get here, when she slowly starts sliding back into the hole. Unable to get a purchase on the sand, she calls out, “No, no, no, no, no, no!” She almost has it at the edge of the shaft, but then the trap door slams back down on her head and she disappears below with an “Ow! F*ck!”
I laughed out loud. They had me.
Made for Love premiered on April 1, 2021. HBO Max, still trying to fine-tune what I call their “mini-binge” model, released for the first three of eight episodes. The rest of the series followed with the middle three episodes a week later, and the final two episodes a week after that. It’s an interesting concept, especially for a show with only half-hour long episodes: give the show a couple weeks to build up a little bit of watercooler talk, and then allow the wait-until-it’s-all-available crowd to jump in on that conversation before it dies off.
The series is based on a book of the same name by Alissa Nutting, who is serving as both an executive producer and writer on the show. Along with her participation, the production is women-led across the board, at the executive producer, director, and writer levels—something that actor Billy Magnussen (Byron Gogol) praised the show for in an interview with the Four Quadrant podcast.
You might expect that having the original author at the helm, the show would follow the book fairly tightly. However, the Made for Love pilot immediately diverges in several key aspects. In the novel, the heroine’s father is older and living in a trailer park for senior citizens. He has only just recently received his “companion” Diane, with her shipping crate still sitting opened on the floor. Most importantly, it seems that an entire subplot, involving a con-man named Jasper who has an…um, encounter with a dolphin, thankfully did not make the cut.
We find out that the “little mermaid” (as El Perro later refers to her) is Hazel Gogol, our heroine. She is played by award-winning actress Cristin Milioti, who has the most amazing fake-smile-fading-into-bewilderment I have ever seen. Hazel is the wife of tech genius Byron Gogol, owner and CEO of Gogol Tech. Gogol is an obvious stand-in for Google, with the same ubiquitous reach into the lives of practically every human on the planet. However, in this world, Gogol merges the omnipresence of Google, the slick branding of Apple, and the messianic leadership of Facebook.
The gleaming building in the desert is “The Hub,” Gogol’s tech campus. Byron and Hazel have lived in the Hub exclusively for the last 10 years, without ever stepping foot outside. The Hub is composed of multiple, connected cubes, each operating like an isolated holodeck, able to project any possible environment onto the walls and ceiling. It offers a nearly full-sensory immersion, with only the sense of smell excluded (as we’ll learn later).
While watching a news report speculating about the couple making a public appearance, Byron quips, “Why would we ever leave the Hub?” Hazel doesn’t reply to his rhetorical question, but you can see she’s not as sold as he is. During a board meeting that Byron hosts at the Hub, two guests are marveling at how they cannot tell the perfect blue sky is a fake. Hazel surreptitiously points out to them that the clouds don’t move right in the corners. She’s had some time to think on the problem.
Apparently, Hazel’s is a rags-to-riches story. She comes from a small desert town called Twin Sands (a Twin Peaks reference?), which she describes as “a f***in’ s***hole” upon her return. Her dad lives in a trailer in the middle of what appears to be a junkyard of his own making. In a flashback to her childhood, it’s revealed that he is a bit of a tinkerer who traded the family station wagon for a plane that needed work. Despite that, along with her mom, they appear to have been a happy family.
24 hours before her escape from the Hub, Hazel was living in the lap of luxury. Their home is a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque marvel, nestled in an idyllic forest in the California foothills (simulated, of course). They have a private outdoor pool with a real live dolphin, Zelda, which Byron swims with regularly. Hazel has nothing more important to do than read magazines poolside, lounging in the always perfect sunshine.
To all appearances, Byron completely dotes on Hazel. The flashback to 24 hours earlier begins with them in bed, Byron going down on Hazel until she orgasms, and then turning down her offer to reciprocate stating, “You’re the one who matters.” We later find out this is “Orgasm 3,248” as she is interrupted insistently while playing a flight simulator game to “rate” her orgasm. The Hub helpfully displays a playback of their morning session on screen, complete with recorded biometrics on Hazel. She quickly pounds out a 5-star rating and gets back to her game.
Being a tech genius, Byron is of course trying to use technology to resolve an age-old question of man: what are women thinking? He has her rate her orgasms to provide feedback on what does and does not work. Very clinical. Later in the day though, during an interview with one of his lackeys, Hazel is asked to confirm her response to questions four and five in the review of Orgasm 3,248. Was her mood following orgasm really 5-stars? Yes, it was 5-stars, she insists, and it’s still 5-stars right now, she insists even more emphatically—sending the embarrassed lackey away with his tail between his legs.
Clearly, Byron suspects something is wrong, but the tools he’s applied to the problem thus far are not answering the question, which leads us to the new Gogol product that gives the show its name. Made for Love is a microchip that is implanted in the brains of a couple to connect their minds. “A network of two,” as the commercial for the product puts it. At the board meeting, Byron makes the surprise announcement that Made for Love is now operational, and he and Hazel will be “users one.” The next day they will get their chips installed and have “comingled hearts, comingled minds, comingled identities. Secrets dismantled. Pure. Union.”
Byron’s chief scientists look on in horror, whispering between themselves that the product is nowhere near ready, currently being little better than a spy-cam. More importantly, they predict one of them will die if they try to synchronize. Hazel too has a deer in the headlights look about her but keeps the fake smile firmly planted on her face. Later that evening, as the party continues, she makes her way back to their living quarters, pulls a sheet off the bed, grabs a few heavy objects to weigh it down, goes out to the pool, and plunges in with the sheet tied around her neck.
In the present-day timeline, Hazel manages to flag down a ride into the nearest town. She sneaks into a strip club to steal some clothes and get cleaned up. Lyle, one of the two scientists, shows up and claims to be on her side, saying that he locked down the Hub to give them a head start. She doesn’t buy it though, sure that he is there to capture her and take her back. In her panic, Hazel ends up swinging a fire axe at Lyle, chopping off three of his fingers. The two of them screaming at each other in shock and horror is strangely hilarious (this is a black comedy, lest we forget).
Fleeing the scene, Hazel flags down another ride (there’s a lot of good Samaritans in this show), this time taking her back home to Twin Sands. Upon arrival, she goes to a pay phone, psyching herself up for an awkward call to her dad. Before she gets to the phone though, it rings. As she steps away from the phone, a car behind her starts to have its car alarm go off. Then another, and another.
Trailing a string of honking car alarms, she gives up on the phone call and just starts walking. A random stranger comes up and asks her if he can talk to her. Byron has called his cell phone and uses the guy as a relay to talk to Hazel. The conversation is pretty amusing—with Hazel finally free to tell Byron what she really thinks—until he tells her, “You’re already Made for Love.” Suddenly everything clicks and she knows the terrible truth. Byron already put the chip in her.
While the pilot episode stands well on its own, HBO Max’s decision to drop it along with the next two episodes really helped with the hook. Those three episodes combine to make a fairly solid first act. In the second episode, Hazel’s past and present relationship with her father is explored as he tries his best to help her. A clever TV interview segment in the third episode gives us some necessary exposition to fill in the details of Hazel’s relationship with Byron. These three episodes span her first night free of the Hub, ending with a confrontation between the two ex-love birds that seems like it’s going to go one way, only to take an unexpected bounce.
On Rotten Tomatoes, Made for Love started out with a 96% rating with the critics, and is still holding at 94% a year later. The first season has a strong ending with an interesting twist that works as a satisfying full-circle closure to Hazel’s story arc. However, the producers made it clear in an interview with Collider that they purposely left a little room for a second season. Sure enough, in June the Hollywood Reporter announced that they got the head nod from HBO Max.
Made for Love has a fun comedy with surreal quality to it, putting an only slightly absurdist spin on our modern obsession with technology. Cristin Milioti carries the show, making you root for Hazel all the way, even though we find that she’s a far-from-perfect heroine. The rest of the cast, especially Ray Romano and Billy Magnussen, are also great and obviously everyone was having a great time making this show.
Season 2 of Made for Love premieres on April 28, 2022.