'Made for Love' Review: Cristin Milioti is Outstanding in HBO Max's Sinister, Hilarious Blend of Sci-Fi, Horror, and Comedy [SXSW]
A bleak near-future where late capitalism and big tech have created a nightmarish new reality. An abused woman on the run from her powerful, wealthy, sociopathic partner. Cristin Milioti winning our hearts while enduring one insane event after another in the desert. The first episode of Made for Love invites comparisons to Black Mirror, The Invisible Man, and Palm Springs by default. That, in and of itself, is a compliment of sorts.
But the grander compliment is that Made for Love is very much its own thing, a blend of satiric science fiction, just-gnarly-enough horror, and riotous physical comedy that feels like a grand announcement. “Welcome to the TV show that’s going to be your weekly obsession for the next few months,” the episode practically declares. Fans of gonzo genre storytelling and the ever-on-the-rise Milioti (and aren’t we all her fans at this point?) should line up immediately.
The first episode of Made for Love (the only one to play at this year’s online SXSW Film Festival) tells two simultaneous stories: Hazel Green’s (Milioti) desperate escape from the isolated compound where she lives under the thumb of her powerful tech kajillionaire husband, and of the 24 hours leading up to her final decision to flee. The episode cuts between both timelines at a killer pace – if there’s even a chance the momentum will slow in one, it jumps to the other. This leaves a 30-minute premiere with about twice as much story, and as much consequence, as you’d expect. The script, credited to Alissa Nutting (who wrote the novel on which the series is based), Christina Lee (the series showrunner), Dean Bakopoulos, and Patrick Somerville is as efficient a piece of writing as you can hope to find. That it also finds room to be so sinister, so exciting, and so damn funny, is some kind of miracle.
From the outside looking in, Made for Love sounds like the most terrifying new show of 2021. Hazel is a prisoner in the home of Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen, who will only seem over-the-top to people who haven’t seen what wealthy tech geniuses act like these days), her partner of 10 years who has seemingly given her everything one can want. A beautiful home. Obscene amounts of money. Frequent sex. A swimming pool with a pet dolphin. But that beautiful home is created using holograms that have lost their luster, that obscene amount of money comes from a tech company that happily endorses riots around the globe at product launches, that frequent sex requires extensive performance reviews using an in-house app after the climax, and that dolphin…well, that’s a pretty small pool in which to spend an entire life.
And then there’s “Made for Love,” not the title of the show, but a new tech initiative that will allow two brains to meld together and share all feelings via implanted microchips. What seems like a romantic idea for about three seconds is actually a nightmare. And that’s when Hazel makes the biggest, and possibly most dangerous, decision of her life.
Director Stephanie Laing has an eye for these dark details, of a future that seems simultaneously ridiculous but also upsettingly plausible. But she also has an eye for comedy. Her camera finds humor in even the darkest moments: characters and objects stumble or glide into frame with slapstick grace; long shots from great distances allow extended bits of comedy business to play out, beautifully isolated; an act of gory violence is shot just right to emphasize both the humor and the terror. There’s a school of filmmaking that suggests comedies should be shot as plainly as possible. Laing and Lee reject that notion with such ferocious style and visual wit that one hopes all TV comedies take a long, hard look at their visual aesthetics going forward.
And at the center of it all is Milioti, a gifted actress who has been so good for so long that it was only a matter of time before she became A Big Deal. Last year, Palm Springs proved she could carry a great movie. The first episode of Made for Love confirms she can carry a television show. Both storylines show off two completely different comedic toolboxes: she’s cool and icy and wry in the scenes before Hazel flees, and in full slapstick mode in the scenes that take place after her escape, radiating a manic energy that feels siphoned from a Coen brothers or Sam Raimi movie. She’s the show’s great asset – an instantly relatable woman in a nightmare future whose bumbling feels like chaotic strength rather than just funny business. But with that said…she’s just really funny. Effortlessly funny. The kind of funny that balances out the nihilistic world-building and gives you hope. And Laing’s camera knows just how to frame her.
Can Made for Love sustain this energy through the rest of its 10-episode run? That’s the issue with reviewing a single episode of television. The premiere is a sprint, a mad dash through world-building and character introduction and plot mayhem. It’s exhausting in the best ways. The ending suggests that things will slow down next week, and that Ray Romano‘s character (given only a few scenes here) will play a much larger role. That will certainly be necessary. It’s impossible to ask Made for Love to keep this level of energy up for its entire run. But as far as first episodes go, this is the kind of premiere that hooks you and guarantees you will watch every damn episode.
Made for Love premieres on HBO Max on April 1, 2021.
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