There is typecasting, and then there is Cristin Milioti’s career the last few years, where she has repeatedly been hired to play strong-willed women trapped by some useless dude in a science-fiction nightmare.
First there was “U.S.S. Callister,” her fantastic episode of Black Mirror, where she found herself uploaded into Jesse Plemons’ Star Trek fantasy. Then there was last year’s delightful movie Palm Springs, where Andy Samberg’s Nyles thoughtlessly dragged her into the time loop that had already snared him. Now, she’s the star of HBO Max’s Made for Love as Hazel, whose tech-mogul husband Byron (Billy Magnussen) secretly installs a chip in her head that allows him to monitor everything she sees, hears, and feels. Milioti occasionally gets to play characters living in more mundane circumstances — she was great as a single pregnant woman in the first episode of Amazon’s Modern Love adaptation — but even her most famous role, as the belatedly-introduced title character of How I Met Your Mother, often treated her as the object of obsession in a time-bending love story.
Is Milioti herself the prisoner of a variation on the roles she keeps playing, with some superhuman creative force conjuring up these jobs again and again for her? Or is it just that, time and again, she’s so good and indelible in this specific niche that whenever a script in that vein gets greenlit, she is the first and only call?
Whatever kind of career loop Milioti’s stuck in, it’s a creatively fruitful one — she’s wonderful again in Made for Love. Adapted from Alissa Nutting’s novel by Nutting, Dean Bakopoulos, Patrick Somerville, and Christina Lee, it is yet another recent show to monkey around with time, opening with Hazel climbing out of a hatch in the middle of the desert wearing a sparkly green minidress before flashing back to explain the desperate circumstances that got her there. And both the premiere and later episodes bounce around over the entire run of Hazel and Byron’s unhappy marriage, and even back to her childhood with father Herbert (Ray Romano). But where too many shows use the in medias res opening, flashbacks, etc., as ways to spice up otherwise boring stories, Made for Love smartly deploys them for comedy, or to illustrate Hazel’s state of mind as she realizes that said mind is no longer entirely her own.
Magnussen played a crucial supporting role in Netflix’s 2018 sci-fi comedy Maniac, which was developed by Somerville, and there’s some thematic and tonal overlap in how each show portrays technology being perverted to address human unhappiness, as well as their dystopian visions of realities not too far removed from our own. Byron’s last name is Gogul — which isn’t subtle, but gets the point across about how much a handful of companies have come to dominate our lives — and he is a compendium of the worst traits of every famous tech bro, particularly in his complete inability to have an authentic interaction with another human being. When the series begins, Byron and Hazel have spent the last 10 years locked away from humanity in “The Hub,” a portion of Gogul Tech corporate headquarters that’s basically like the holodeck from Star Trek. The only people in their lives are one another and a handful of Gogul employees, and Byron, rightly suspicious that his wife no longer loves him, has decided to make the experience even more insular by turning her into the unwitting guinea pig for the Made for Love chip.
One thing leads to another, and Hazel winds up on the run, only without the ability to hide because of the chip. Some of the show’s more inspired comic moments find her taking advantage of the situation to humiliate her disgusting spouse. She reunites with her widower father, who in his daughter’s absence has become uncomfortably close to his sex doll — again, something artificial substituting for the real thing — going so far as to give it a name, dress it in his late wife’s clothes, and take it everywhere. Romano’s career has leaned more toward drama over the last decade — and he’s been terrific at that, in projects like Men of a Certain Age, Parenthood, and The Irishman — but he still has his comedy chops, and here, he deftly underplays the material to get laughs without upstaging Milioti.
Not that anybody could. She is such a dynamo of justifiable confusion and rage, and such a terrific camera subject for chief director Stephanie Laing, that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part, even with its echoes of things like “U.S.S. Callister.” Large swaths of Made for Love, particularly the glimpses of Hazel faking her way through an increasingly terrible marriage, lean heavily on Milioti’s ability to play multiple moods at once. Magnussen and Romano are fun, too, and the show does interesting things with depicting how terrible the world has gotten under the shadow of men like Byron (in one scene, Hazel walks past a wall with the graffiti message, “Every morning, I wake up on the wrong side of capitalism”). But Milioti is the main attraction. Her face makes her emotions so clear and winning — even without the microchip boost.
Milioti’s Palm Springs character spends most of that movie trying to escape the time loop, even as Nyles insists there’s no way out and it’d best to take pleasure in some of its advantages. I hope Milioti is able to remove herself from this career loop at some point, just for variety’s sake, but it’s hard not to enjoy her while she’s stuck here.
The first three episodes of Made for Love debut April 1st on HBO Max, followed by three more on April 8th, and the last two on April 15th. I’ve seen the first four.