In adapting her sci-fi novel “Made for Love” for television, author Alissa Nutting worked with showrunner Christina Lee to bring to the screen some fantastical elements, like simulated beaches so convincing that they’re indistinguishable from the real thing.
But the crux of the story is an analog one: an examination of who you are when you’re in a relationship — and who you are when no one else is watching.
Nutting wanted to explore the themes of “technology, love, relationship, surveillance and divorce… on a really fun and entertaining and suspenseful visual scale.”
The HBO Max series, from Paramount Television Studios, centers on Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green, a woman who discovers that her controlling tech billionaire husband, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), has implanted a chip in her brain that tracks her whereabouts and her emotions. The technology visualized on-screen seems at once futuristic — the Gogol complex is a series of virtual reality cubical hubs, and Byron can see everything Hazel sees through the chip in her brain — and yet not quite so far off in an age of smart speakers and remote workplaces.
“We wanted to tell a sci-fi story through a female lens,” says Lee, who calls this series “one of the greatest creative experiences” she’s ever had. “I think the big difference there with what that means, ‘using a female lens,’ is that while the sci-fi aspect of it is the backdrop and is what’s exciting about it, ultimately what this show is about is relationships and a woman’s journey in finding her identity and exploring intimacy. Those were the kinds of things that we really wanted to dig into.”
The novel was heavily centered on Hazel’s perspective, but the TV adaptation had to get out of her head — a little ironic, given that the implanted chip allows a direct view into her brain. While the eccentric, domineering Byron is mostly seen through flashback in the book, his character is brought to the forefront for the series, a decision meant to add complexity to his villainy.
“So much of the show is really peeling back the layers between public appearance and even persona within relationships,” Nutting says. “Hazel and Byron are two people who are [each] really pretending to be someone that they aren’t, even when they’re alone with one another.”
In developing the series, Lee and Nutting shaped a narrative around the ways that modern technology can seem like an answer to loneliness, albeit an imperfect one. Hazel’s father, played by Ray Romano, finds companionship in a sex doll. Byron never leaves the Gogol complex. That their protagonist, Hazel, feels not just trapped in her marriage but literally trapped in her luxurious, AI-powered home seemed prescient, as the production filmed some of its episodes in the midst of the pandemic. That element of the show was crafted before 2020 turned everything upside down, prompting the writers to re-examine their work in the midst of the greater health crisis raging outside.
“It’s interesting because we wrote that scene pre-pandemic, but then we rewrote it during the pandemic, because we were like, we all have experienced that now — for all of us who are lucky to have homes — the comforts of a home,” says Lee. “We’re lucky in that way. But at the same time, it was a very difficult year. And so I think we can relate, as an audience, to that feeling that she had, in a way that I’m not sure that we could have related a year ago.”
Echoed Nutting: “Byron’s whole thing is that a simulation can be just as good, or that if you have a simulated experience, you have no need for the real thing. And that came to mean something different, I think, for all of us, post-lockdown.”
After being forced to pause filming in March 2020, production picked back up in mid-October in Los Angeles. Nutting was “blissed out” to see the cast and crew, underscoring the importance of human connection.
“It really, I think, solidified this theme [that] there are some things that there just is not a psychological, artificial supplement for,” she says.