How awful the future is. In Made for Love, the HBOMax dark comedy based on Alissa Nutting’s novel and set at a time not far from now, Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti) is stuck in an awful marriage. Water is scarce and heavily regulated; wearable technology has proliferated over its hosts like Spanish moss; Hazel’s father (Ray Romano) is dressing up his remarkably lifelike sex doll in her mother’s clothes. Ten years ago, Hazel married a nervy tech billionaire in the hopes of escaping a life defined by poverty, only to discover that Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen, having a magnificent time) is as insufferable as he is powerful—which is to say, very. He’s charming and handsome, but utterly incapable of intimacy. In the first episode, he assesses whether Hazel is happy with their sex life by having her rate her orgasm in an app. It’s tragic, because you get the impression he wants to know other people but has no other tools except the creepy surveillance technology he’s created.
The show operates on a narrow band of tone where Hazel’s separation from her megalomaniacal husband is not worrisome, despite her total lack of assets, his obsession with control, and the threatening private security at his disposal. Violence feels close at hand, but the show twists it into the low-level sort of shock where hysterical laughter might bubble up out of nowhere.
Sure, Hazel might feel fear, but after a decade of repressing her true feelings, she’s drawn towards the things she used to revile. She seeks out strange smells and perverse sex, jettisoning the sterile neutrals of Byron’s whole world. Made for Love is so dryly funny that it is almost brittle, but the tone reflects the loopy surreality of the post-present: Hazel can’t believe any of this is really happening to her, so even as her life is in jeopardy, she’s disinclined to take it too seriously.
Byron, meanwhile, is both omnipotent and defanged, an algorithmically sculpted demigod on his back foot, running after his marriage like a headless chicken. The framing gives Made for Love ample space to focus on a merciless takedown of the absurdities of ultra-capitalist tech futurism, embodied by the frail egos of its psychologically stunted robber barons. Hazel is a person in the process of becoming; her character is deliberately blurry around the edges. Meanwhile, you get the impression Byron has been the same extremely silly person since he was in the single digits: stubborn, demanding, obsessive, and eerily capable of dismissing the experiences of other people. He is taken by any solution involving gadgetry.
Byron is so loath to mix with the rest of the world that he conducts all of his business out of The Hub, a glass-and-metal mansion where the walls turn into screens, a dolphin swims in the pool, and sophisticated biometrics track bodily needs—including, yes, orgasms. The Hub is remote work’s logical endpoint, the granddaddy of all Zooms: It appears to be the height of convenience, but it is not especially dissimilar from a prison.
It would be more depressing if it weren’t so goofy. In one scene, Byron samples potential fragrances that could be used to create natural-seeming scents in The Hub. Magnussen makes the most of every curled-lip facial expression, turning up his nose and theatrically gagging when he’s confronted with how the world smells. Finally, he alights on one he likes. It’s an empty test tube. “Glass,” he says. “Write that one down.”
Hazel is not uniquely at the mercy of a tech billionaire with issues. She has committed more consciously, perhaps, than the rest of us have. But aren’t the terms of service we blindly agree to just as binding as marriage vows?
As we have become increasingly beholden to tech, we’ve also become carefully attenuated to the neuroses of the men who sell it. The stupid amounts of money involved creates an ecosystem of self-involved capitalists and the sycophants who fawn over them, creating and reinforcing a cult of the individual corporate genius as humanity’s greatest accomplishment. Made for Love questions Byron’s emotional maturity as it peels back the layers to reveal a man creating complex technical solutions to largely invented problems. But at least, I suppose, he makes a profit.
The same cannot be said of Adam Neumann, the real-life former WeWork CEO. In WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, a new documentary premiering this week on Hulu, writer and director Jed Rothstein outlines how Neumann’s company became the most overvalued company in the world, only to lose it all over the course of six weeks. Eventually the company’s stock tanked and its employees were forced to find new work after being yoked to a laughingstock—while Neumann walked away with a payout amounting to $1.7 billion. The experts in the documentary use phrases like, “flushing money down the toilet,” and a “bonfire of cash,” to explain the sheer magnitude of loss, but in the end, what makes it stick is the people—the employees who believed they were going to become rich by reinventing work for a man they believed to be a genius.
Neumann probably did consider himself to be a genius, though I wonder whether he was thrilled by his own ideas or the sheer scale of his grift. Whether or not he is still enamored of his own bullshit is up for debate, as he and his wife, WeWork cofounder Rebekah Paltrow Neumann declined to participate in the documentary.
What’s more telling is how thoroughly the people around him were smitten by Neumann’s vision, which was presented to the world couched in Silicon Valley corporate-ese tinged with millennial-friendly buzzwords. Employees dedicated hours of labor to him; investors threw money at him; some of the youngest marks bought wholesale into WeWork culture, which included a co-living space (WeLive) and an ambitious effort to reinvent elementary education (WeGrow). It was like its own voluntary Hub, actually: your whole life could fit in the WeWork ecosystem.
If anything, Rothstein’s documentary spares us some of the worst excesses of WeWork’s corporate culture, and as a result, passes up on the opportunity to come down harder on the startup scene in general, and WeWork’s flavor of millennial “hustle,” in particular. (This Baffler piece on “philosopher-VCs” is a much more satisfying excoriation of the so-called intellectual daring of rich men who will entertain any sociopolitical reality except a wealth tax. “What’s the point of taking long vacations if your society doesn’t have a retail economy built on Groupon vouchers?”)
Instead, the film is nearly sympathetic to Neumann’s lofty rhetoric and the pressure he must have been under as his company imploded. But it’s in service of observing that, though Neumann was a problem, the environment that handsomely rewarded perceived male genius, even when it colossally failed, is the bigger problem. (Elizabeth Holmes is a woman, but in her long con, she consciously aped Apple founder Steve Jobs, right down to the pitch of her voice.) The most confusing part of the WeWork story is just how many people were taken in by Neumann’s salesmanship—employees, clients, and investors alike. It was all hot air, but they wanted to believe.
Where to Watch Made for Love:
Where to Watch WeWork:
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