How HBO Max's 'Made for Love' Combines Sex Dolls and Dolphins
It's the weirdest, funniest show out there.
Novelist Alissa Nutting has a key role in HBO Max's limited series adaptation of her 2017 book Made for Love, although she never appears physically onscreen. Rather, a replica of her face stares dead-eyed into the camera as Diane, a sex doll that is intregral to the plot. That might seem strange to most people, but being cast as the synthetic partner to a widower portrayed by Ray Romano hardly fazed Nutting, who developed the project with her novelist husband, Dean Bakopoulos, and Maniac creator Patrick Somerville.
"Ray, one night, was like, 'Is it creepy, to you?'" says Nutting. "And I was like, 'Probably not as much as it should be.' My first reaction is, She looks amazing. I would love her body instead of just being sisters from the neck up. It was neat. I think my emotional viewpoint is a lot of times this sarcastic internal deadness that Diane would really represent."
Nutting's comic novel garnered high acclaim for its deranged tale of tech, romance, and dolphin sex. (More on that last bit later.) Now she, along with her collaborators and showrunner Christina Lee, have reimagined Made for Love as a TV series. The basic premise is still the same: Cristina Milioti plays Hazel, who escapes the compound she lived in with her tech mogul husband, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), after she discovers he's implanted a chip in her brain as part of a plan to meld their minds in a deranged show of spousal devotion and heads to the trailer park where her father, Herbert (Romano), is living with his new partner, the aforementioned sex doll Diane.
Made for Love jumps back and forth in time to document both Hazel's life on the run and her previous existence in Byron's sanitized paradise known as The Hub, all in the name of exploring what the idea of love looks like to different people. "That's one of the big things that drew me to Alissa's work and the show is exploring all these different kinds of love without placing any judgement on it," Lee says. "I thought that was really beautiful."
Nutting—whose madcap 2017 Grub Street Diary is absolutely worth your time—admits she would happily put a chip in her head ("I would totally clown car out my brain," she says) and was initially drawn to write about the intersection of tech and romance when she was going through a divorce. But the series gets to expand the purview of the novel, in which Byron largely existed as a shadowy figure looming in the background of the narrative. Now he's just as much a central character as Hazel herself is, and maybe even a strangely sympathetic one—in a fucked up way, of course. "We wanted to show that his perspective and his love for her is real, albeit abusive and controlling, which does not take away from the experience he had," Lee says.
For as terrifying as Hazel's situation is, the show isn't exactly a futuristic nightmare. 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?"
So, acknowledging all that, what's the deal with the dolphin? In the pilot, Byron takes a swim with Zelda, a dolphin that lives in The Hub that Byron rarely swims with. It seems like a nod to a plot in the book that runs parallel to Hazel's in which a hunky grifter named Jasper becomes insatiably sexually attracted to dolphins following an incident in the water. That is a storyline Nutting would like to explore in a potential second season, but for now we're left with a more mysterious role for Zelda in the narrative.
"Like Diane, when we talked about Zelda, she was very much part of the cast," Lee says. Zelda was not played by a real dolphin on set, but was brought to life with a mixture of CGI and puppetry. Nutting had high expectations for her, however. "When we were designing Zelda, it was very important to Christina and I that, despite her captivity, she be a remarkably beautiful dolphin," Nutting says. "We wanted her to be like the supermodel of dolphins, but realistic."
With a sex doll featuring the creator's face and a puppet dolphin, the Made for Love set was full of surprises. "It's just, like, another day of work," Nutting says.
The first three episodes of Made for Love are available to HBO Max subscribers now, with three more added April 8 and the final two on April 15.