I first read Alissa Nutting’s 2017 absurdist sci-fi-satire Made for Love on an airplane, laughing out loud so many times that my seatmates began to suspect me of insanity. I returned to it several times over the years, mostly to try and figure out how she pulled off its freaky magic tricks. As similarly demonstrated in her unhinged Grub Street diets, Nutting has a perfectly twisted way with words, a darkly hilarious and refreshingly frank way of looking at and sending up the increasingly uncanny world we inhabit. When I learned that HBO Max would be adapting the novel, I was apprehensive: Would the show be able to capture the book’s maniacal humor, its oddly poetic horniness, its gorgeous sense of impending doom? Four episodes in, I’d say — cautiously — yes.
Premiering today, the series follows Hazel Green (an incredible Cristin Milioti), a scrappy amateur scam artist who gets seduced over the course of a single evening by an Elon Musk–ian tech billionaire named Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). Hazel and Byron wed instantaneously and spend the next decade safely and claustrophobically ensconced inside The Hub, a hermetically sealed bubble that’s made to mimic the outside world, minus its smells. When the increasingly miserable Hazel realizes Byron has begun merging their brains so that they might be able to permanently read each other’s thoughts, she panics and escapes, running home to her estranged father Herbert (Ray Romano), who’s in the throes of a new relationship with a sex doll named Diane. Somehow, things only get stranger from there, as Hazel tries to figure out how to extract Byron from her brain while regaining any sort of agency over her own life and eating breakfast opposite Diane. (The book involves an entire secondary plot revolving around a man who falls in love with a dolphin, but that’s been scrapped from the series — at least for the time being. More on that below.)
Nutting, who wrote the story in the midst of her own panicked escape from a marriage, co-adapted Made for Love along with showrunner Christina Lee, who fell as deeply in love with the novel as I did. I got on Zoom with both of them to talk about the process of turning such a uniquely weird book into an equally weird TV show, how the show changed over the course of the pandemic, and why sex doll Diane’s “look of slight dissatisfaction” is so familiar.
Alissa, I love this book so much that I gave it to everyone in my family for Christmas a few years ago.
You’re like, “I hate my family.” [Laughs.] I love that.
Can you tell me a bit about where you were in your life when you started writing the novel, where the idea came from?
Alissa Nutting:I was pregnant, but I also knew I had to get a divorce, and that was scary. We’d been together for 12 years, and I felt just like my life and world was so wrapped up with him … it felt like starting over from square one. I used this book as a way to work through some of that fear and anxiety, particularly with surveillance. Because with social media, I knew that even if I blocked him, we had so many mutual acquaintances in our lives that news would get back to him. I was, in my head, playing the conversations and the screenshots being sent back and forth, mocking anything I posted. So I was thinking, “What’s the most hyperbolic version of this story to tell?” At the time, 50 Shades [of Grey] was this global sensation, and I was thinking, If that were real, if this billionaire just reached out to a young woman with nothing, he wouldn’t just be trying to give her orgasms. There would be some sinister price tag that she would have to give back in terms of relinquishing her life or control or power. More than just light bondage games.
So it was the melding of those two together. When I moved to writing TV full-time in 2019, Christina and I started talking about it — and I was so lucky to find a fellow fan of sci-fi and comedy.
Christina Lee: For me, I wasn’t aware of Alissa’s work before this came to me, and reading her book was such a surprise and delight. Here you have this pretty intense and dark storyline, but with so much humor. The book made me laugh out loud so much. It was really fun to take that book and expand from that, with the rich characters she’d created.
When did you decide to turn it into a show — how did these conversations start?
Alissa Nutting: It just kind of came really organically. I was developing a few other things and I knew that with the right partner, this could really be a great show. One of the things that Christina and I had a lot of discussions about, and that was really important to us, was just presenting sci-fi through a female lens. I’m such a huge fan of the genre, but I did always feel that I was watching a story being told from a male gaze or aligned to the concerns of a male audience. I think surveillance in particular, it’s something that all genders can relate to in our modern world, but it’s so often different for women. It’s just this sense of always having to be aware of who’s watching you at any given time. Personally, it’s really kind of part of my relationship with technology — I both feel spied upon and safer. I completely drank the Kool-Aid. I have Echoes in every room. For a long time, I kept doing all these tests to see how far I needed to place them from where I flush my toilet. I don’t want the Echo to hear me flush my toilet! Even though that’s probably the least embarrassing thing that it’s picking up on. But I bare all to my Echo now.
In terms of the technology in Made for Love — the mind-meld plot is obviously sci-fi, but it also feels like a metaphor for the worst outcome of a marriage, like you were saying about your own. How did you come up with that specific tech?
Alissa Nutting: I think the scary thing about technology is that it can convince you of the benefits while glossing over the downside. I never read terms and contracts. There are so many ways that I’m sure I give away my data and info and privacy in exchange for convenience. So it was really a true dilemma for me. I was thinking, Well, say there was tech that allowed you to be fully synced with your partner. Could anyone be in love ever again, knowing exactly what their partner is thinking about them? But also, it could be a time-saver. I shocked myself, the ways I sounded like Byron, thinking through the advantages of this dystopian device that I was writing a whole book and then a show about trying to escape.
The push-pull of it is something that Christina and I wanted to explore. It was important for us to make Byron and The Hub legitimately alluring, on a level where audience members could understand why she might go with him the night she met him, why someone might stay in this place for a decade where they feel like they have to hide behind this Stepford Wife mask all day and follow a soul-crushing schedule.
This was written four or five years ago, so did you feel like you had to up the ante technology-wise in terms of freakiness? Like, did things already come to pass that you had made up?
Christina Lee: When we were writing, Elon Musk — there was an article about him developing a brain chip. We were like, “This doesn’t even take place in the future now!”
Alissa Nutting: I was like, “Slow your roll, Elon!” But the relationship elements, the emotional elements that were really front and center that are super important for me and Christina, are these very timeless and relatable things that people do with the hope of being loved. Or to keep someone in a relationship, or not have someone reject them. So in a way, we were both working with this technology that’s of-the-second and constantly updating, but also the most basic, timeless emotional quandary that humans have, and probably will always struggle with.
Christina Lee: It’s also interesting for us because we wrote this show prior to shutting down for the pandemic, and a lot of the conversations that we had were about technology as a shortcut for human interactions. And then we had a year relying entirely on technology. It became even more timely than we initially anticipated. Even the idea that Hazel is trying to escape this gilded prison, that’s how a lot of us have been feeling. It’s ironic, how reality caught up with what we were writing about.
Alissa Nutting: It made me worry. Is this some simulation? Like, “Oh, okay, this is what you’re writing? How about we sentence you and everyone else on the globe to have to go through exactly what this character is going through?”
So you’re saying you caused COVID.
Alissa Nutting: Yes. I’m so sorry. But we made a great show from it.
I do want to talk about some things you cut from the book and why. There’s no Jasper, no dolphin-fucking plotline. What happened there?
Alissa Nutting: [Laughs loudly.] Well, we have very exciting ideas for season two. That was kind of a choice made earlier on in development — and then to have to go to eight episodes because of COVID, we wanted to make sure we were doing justice to Hazel and Herbert and Byron, getting these characters off the ground. Hopefully we’re just getting started.
But you’ve incorporated the dolphin in a different way. Byron has one in his pool.
Alissa Nutting: We have. Dolphins are pervasive in the show. If there is a season two, maybe Jasper finds himself in The Hub, meeting his dolphin in a different way.
So how exactly did Covid change the show? You had to cut episodes?
Christina Lee: Yes, we’d shot a little over four episodes when we shut down on March 13, 2020. I remember that day very well. And then we had the benefit of having that footage to look at, and we learned so much from what our cast did with the characters. And during that time, Alissa and I went back and did so much rewriting. It’s an unusual luxury: “Here’s what these characters are teaching us and we want to take them in a different direction.” And then we got back to shooting in October of 2020. It was anxiety-inducing leading up to it, but once we got there, we were so happy to be shooting, out of our homes, away from our families. It was a blast.
What did you change in the halfway-through rewrite?
Christina Lee: In the book, you’re very much with Hazel in her internal journey, so the changes that we made were mostly expanding all of the characters and their points of view. One of the biggest changes was Byron. In the book, he comes across as the villain. In casting Billy, the two of us were very deliberate in wanting to understand the vulnerability of the Byron character. As misguided and controlling as he is, he does love his wife.
Let’s talk about Cristin. I can’t imagine anyone more suited to the role. Did you write with her in mind?
Alissa Nutting: Yeah. She was the number one. I used to joke that Made for Love is Made for Milioti. I didn’t see any way around it. She’s so expressive and just has such an incredible talent. She’s the only actor I know who can do air quotes with her eyes, I always like to say. Hazel’s character being in this Hub world where she’s acting one way but we know that internally, she’s feeling something very different, is such a high-wire act to convey. She not only pulls it off but layered it even beyond our wildest imagination. Her range really elevated the whole thing.
Christina Lee: She was so integral in developing Hazel with us. She just intrinsically understood that character so well. Even throughout our rewriting process, we’d give her new pages, she’d glance at it and be like, “Got it.” And nail the scene. We’d be like, “How did she do that?!”
What’s something specific she contributed to Hazel?
Christina Lee: One of the big ones was that she wanted — there’s a reason why someone like Hazel would leave her life behind and go live with a man she doesn’t know for ten years. Who is that person? What happened to her to make that choice? Through her questions to us and her understanding of the character, we ended up writing flashback scenes and an argument with Hazel and Herbert based on her ideas.
Was Ray Romano always who you pictured for Herbert? And how did you convince him to play this man in love with a sex doll?
Alissa Nutting: He’s such an incredible dramatic actor. And the relationship between Herbert and Hazel is a prickly one; they’re both very flawed characters who made mistakes and have failed each other in various ways. I knew it’d be a complicated route, to chart the relationship between two stubborn characters who want, in their heart of hearts, to have a reconciliation and be close, but have already resigned themselves to the fact that it’s never gonna happen. Ray is just capable of giving — he’s so likeable. Even when his character is doing something frustrating, his performance is so meticulous. You always understand his motivation. It was one of those things where, when his name came up, there was this gasp. It’s slightly unexpected but could elevate the role so much.
Christina Lee: We also wanted to make sure that the doll, Diane, wasn’t treated as a joke or a punchline. That was very important to us; she’s not treated as such in the book, either. That went a long way with the casting of Ray. You see a real relationship there. You see why he’s with Diane, and bringing humanity to that relationship was enhanced by casting Ray.
How did you cast Diane?
Christina Lee: It was hard to get her. [Laughs.] I don’t know if this has been said before. But Diane’s physical features are based on someone.
Alissa Nutting: I sat for a face-casting for Diane. Because there are just proprietary rights issues that happen with any doll, their face is usually copyrighted. So I became the literal face of Diane. She’s very done up with a smokey eye, and has long, luxurious blonde hair and a rockin’ bod. So the resemblance isn’t quite something that you figure out unless I’m standing next to her. That was very fun. There are disconcerting angles, where I’d see a set photo or would be looking on the monitor and felt like I was seeing my doppelganger.
Christina Lee: We always joked that Diane has a look of slight dissatisfaction, just like Alissa.
Now that you say it, I totally see it.
Alissa Nutting: One of the genius things that our director, Stephanie Laing, and then our first AD, Lisa Satriano, did was whenever Diane was in a scene, they would change her head to an eyeline perspective so she seemed to be actively listening in the conversations, whenever they’d cut over to her. It really added this element of feeling that Diane was one of the crew.
Christina Lee: On our final day of shooting, we played a prank on Stephanie Laing; we distracted her for a bit and we switched out Diane and put Alissa in there. And she called action —
Alissa Nutting: [Freezes on the Zoom like Diane.]
That was very impressive acting.
Alissa Nutting: No, I know. I’m really, really good at playing an inanimate sex doll.
I was rereading old reviews of Made for Love and found one from NPR that said, “Made for Love has a deviant instinct,” which I found funny. Do you think of the things you write as deranged or deviant? Or do they feel normal to you?
Alissa Nutting: I think at the core of the book and the show, the main theme couldn’t be less deviant and more universal. People want to be loved, and how do we get that, in imperfect relationships in an imperfect world in an imperfect society? How do we fill those needs when they’re not met, and when systems and people let us down? To me, that’s always the greatest question. So I’d respectfully disagree.
It’s really funny, too, because another thing that was going on when I was writing the book was that I was researching people who were with synthetic partners and who had made that lifelong choice for companionship, that they were married to their synthetic partner, and I watched several documentaries being like, “I wish I had that relationship! I wouldn’t have gotten divorced if my husband treated me like this! What am I doing wrong, that this doll is doing right?” And that’s a different complicated and perhaps problematic question, but it did really open my eyes just in terms of what I thought was going on there with these dolls, versus what is actually going on there. I think another element of the show is just this curiosity, as opposed to judgment, in terms of the choices people make to meet their needs.
Wholly unrelated last question: I love your Grub Street Diets so much. How are you living?
Alissa Nutting: Not well. Not well at all.
Christina Lee: Let me tell you, as somebody who spends a lot of time with Alissa: There’s no hyperbole there. I can’t believe she eats all the things she does and looks the way that she does, which is amazing. I will say it had a negative impact on my diet.
It’s honestly aspirational.
Alissa Nutting: It’s very low nutritional value. There are consequences. And I live them.