Alissa Nutting is the co-creator, executive producer and a writer on HBO Max’s new sci-fi comedy Made For Love. She also happens to be the author of the 2017 novel which inspired it. While the series sticks closely to her book of the same name’s larger themes of tech and love and how the two intersect, it does leave out some of the source-text’s more bizarre details. For instance, the man who falls in lust with a dolphin. (Nutting hopes interspecies love will find its way into season 2 — if they get picked up.)
While she did manage to write a sentient dolphin named Zelda into the show, it’s safe to say the book Made For Love is even wilder than the eight-episode series. Thankfully, Nutting’s dark humor remains intact. “Finding humor in pain,” she tells Refinery29 over the phone, “is really kind of like an artistic philosophy of mine.”
When she wrote the novel she was pregnant and in the “throes of divorce.” It’s why “the whole book is really about both starting over and the impossibility of starting over,” she says. A fear she had at the time. (She has since remarried.) Her protagonist Hazel is also trapped in a marriage, but, for her, it seems as if there is no way out. Her tech billionaire husband Byron Gogol implanted a chip in her brain that allows him to keep track of her every move and feeling. She can run, but she can’t hide. How romantic.
For the small screen adaptation, Nutting, who is now a screenwriter full time, wanted to dive a little deeper into the idea of surveillance and its effect on romance. For anyone navigating love in the time of the algorithm, privacy is “a point of contention,” she says. Whether someone is reading your brain or your private text messages, she thinks the question we all need to ask ourselves is, “How much privacy is necessary for love?” Privacy is a hot commodity in the Tinder age, but the question of how much we need it in a relationship “often gets brushed aside as being anti-love or anti-romantic,” she says. “The irony is, these conversations are really necessary for any kind of authentic healthy love to happen.”
Made For Love, which stars Cristin Milioti as Hazel, deals with this idea of two partners becoming one. Quite literally, since her husband Byron (Billy Magnussen) wants to evolve what love is by forming a “network of two” that functions under one brain. When pitching the embeddable brain chip that he hopes will change marriage for the better, he says he wants to achieve “co-mingled hearts, co-mingled minds, co-mingled identities. Secrets dismantled. Pure union.” For some that might sound divine, which worries Nutting. She thinks we spend too much time glorifying the “enmeshment” of couples. “I think it’s much rarer that we ask, ‘What is the ideal amount of space or restraint? Is there space for privacy in a relationship?’” she says. “And what are the differences in privacy and secrecy?”
The latter may be the most important relationship question of our time, she says. To find the answers, Nutting knew she had to rethink some of her book’s characters. In her novel, Byron is as close to a mustache-twirling villain as one can get, but in the show, she chose to humanize him. She wanted to offer some context as to why this tech genius is so desperate to keep Hazel around. “I found that it was really an interesting kind of challenge to emphasize with him whether or not we agree with what he’s doing,” she says. “I felt like it was really important that we understand where he’s coming from.”
To better understand where Hazel comes from, she added a new character: Bangles, Hazel’s childhood bestie played by Shrill’s Patti Harrison. Hazel’s ex-convict friend shows the kind of life she might have had if she bummed around her hometown instead of moving to Byron’s futuristic home known as The Hub. But you also “really begin to see Hazel’s mask slip,” Nutting says. “In these moments, suddenly Hazel’s laughing and it’s not to please anyone.” Bangles reminds Hazel of who she really is — for better or worse.
While Nutting was open to expanding Hazel’s world, there was one character she knew had to remain: Diane, Hazel’s father’s sex doll. Though, Herb (Ray Romano) prefers you call her his “synthetic partner” and Nutting does too. She even made Diane in her likeness as a "fail-safe of humanization." With Nutting's face, Diane was no longer seen as an object but a person the cast and crew could recognize. The 20-minute-long silicone casting process to turn her into Diane "was this incredible sensory deprivation experience. When they took off the cast," she says, "I was a little disappointed that it was over so soon.”
Nutting knows some will still treat Diana as if she’s a punchline, but she sees her as an example of “the choices we make in order to get our needs met in imperfect ways.” She also wonders if pretending to love a synthetic partner is really that much different than pretending to love a human being. “To what extent are we all bringing this element of fantasy to our relationships? To what extent are we acting?” she asks.
From brain chips to The Hub, it’s easy to get caught up in the futuristic details of Made For Love, but the show grounds itself in the real emotional questions. Most importantly, Nutting says, the questions of “How do we feel loved? And what do we do to get that feeling?” After working on the HBO Max series, Nutting feels as if she finally knows the answer.
“One of my favorite books has always been The Velveteen Rabbit. I just love this concept that love makes you real,” she says. “Working on this show, that concept really took on a new meaning for me. I began to understand the ways in which, when you’re loved and give love, you can become your real self. You really do become real.”