April 30, 2021

Television

Can’t get you out of my head: ‘Made for Love’

By Craig Mathieson

Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green-Gogol in Made for Love

Leading April’s streaming highlights is a subversive black comedy that takes coercive control to its digital extreme

The messianic excess of big tech makes for stinging absurdities in Made for Love (Stan), a subversive black comedy about a couple who really do see eye to eye after he inserts a surveillance chip into her brain. After spending 10 years inside her CEO husband’s futuristic home/research facility/fortress, Hazel Green-Gogol (Cristin Milioti) decides she has to leave. Even the couple’s pet dolphin, Zelda, thinks it’s time. But Hazel’s great escape is undermined by the swift revelation that her spouse, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), has secretly chipped her with his latest product, the Made for Love implant. She literally can’t get him out of her head.

Adapted from Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel, with the author as one of the creators, Made for Love is a delicious feat of half-hour architecture, layering expansive ideas across intimate character humour. An occasional grifter when Byron took her on their first date in a holographic cube, Hazel can’t really run from a man who can monitor her senses, track her location and study her emotional data. By verging on near-future ludicrousness, the eight-part series makes coercive control a palpable digital possibility. As head of a company that has Google’s data-mining capability and Apple’s hardware, Byron is a deluded narcissist convinced that he can win Hazel back if he can just give their relationship a software update like one of his other products.

The show has a discombobulated rhythm and a burbling electronic score, but it dials down the ramifications to let thoughtful revelations emerge. When Hazel flees to the backblocks home of her widowed father, Herb (Ray Romano), she finds him living with a sex doll named Diane. That leads to a study of loneliness and companionship, and a way into the fraught father–daughter dynamic, instead of a barrage of cheap gags. “This is going to change the world,” Byron tells the scientist, Dr Fiffany Hodeck (Noma Dumezweni), who develops the titular neural device (and her own plotline), but the dangers of such grandiloquence are disconcerting and amusing. Big tech aims to scale up, but Made for Love scales down. Led by Milioti’s vivid but unsentimental lead performance, it’s a welcome prototype.

In telling the story of serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who hunted young Western travellers on Asia’s hippie trail during the 1970s, The Serpent (Netflix) manages to impressively sidestep most of the pitfalls that commonly befall true crime dramas. Tahar Rahim’s Sobhraj is a chilling sociopath, but he’s depicted through the eyes of his terrified friends, his girlfriend and accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), and the dogged Dutch embassy attaché in Bangkok, Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), who, along with his wife, Angela (Ellie Bamber), put together a case when local authorities won’t. Writer Richard Warlow and director Tom Shankland derive maximum tension from Sobhraj’s machinations, but this study of evil – with roots in France’s colonial history – avoids being exploitative.

Shot with a cinematic sheen by filmmaker Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), the new take on Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast (Apple TV+) is a middling thriller that refuses to explore its wider social underpinnings. Inventor Allie Fox (Justin Theroux, Paul’s nephew) is that familiar American agitator, someone whose gifts lead them to disavow the system that has nurtured them. But Allie’s motivations, or possible crimes, remain unclear even as he takes his wife, Margot (Melissa George), and two children into Mexico to avoid arrest. The risk, somewhat implausibly, escalates, and while Theroux expertly embodies a seething, destructive superiority the seven-episode run sags. Peter Weir’s 1986 film adaptation, with Harrison Ford playing against type as Allie, remains the better option.

In brief: Supernatural period fantasies are a Netflix mainstay, but Shadow and Bone is by far the best iteration the streaming giant has produced yet, with immersive production design and exterior sets that offer a magic-infused version of Tsarist Russia, an intertwining plot that mixes court and criminal intrigue, and a heroine, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who avoids the “Chosen One” clichés the genre favours. The Tailings (SBS On Demand) is a promising Tasmanian-made micro-series mystery – six episodes in an hour – about a teenage girl (the excellent Tegan Stimson) and a young teacher (Mabel Li) living on the margins of a small town in thrall to the local mining company. The ABC’s detention centre drama Stateless was one of the best series of 2020, and now that it’s available via Netflix it remains an evocative study of a system that breaks those on either side of the razor wire.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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