When Love Is Optimized, Is It Still Love?

A man and his sex doll sit at a booth in HBO's 'Made for Love'

On television these days, the near future tends to look like an Apple Store. Everything is gleaming white, a triumph of polymers and marble and Windex. Everything is shiny and unsullied by human fingerprints. On Made for Love, HBO Max’s zany new series about a woman who manages to escape what’s essentially a virtual-reality prison, the contrast between her pristine digital surroundings and her disheveled, pine-paneled childhood home makes for the show’s most effective comedy. On Starz’s third season of The Girlfriend Experience, which will debut in May and places its central character within a groundbreaking start-up in what seems to be the near future, all the messiest and most primal human experiences—eating, fucking, fighting—are rendered sterile, and bloodless. The clothes are made of latex and the gourmet dinners are sashimi, both smooth and chilly to the touch.

The two series are curious about what we really want from the people we love. But they also use futuristic technology to complicate the subject of desire—to imagine what we might want if anything were possible, and how much control we’d crave over others. On Made for Love, adapted from Alissa Nutting’s semi-absurdist 2017 novel, Hazel (played by Cristin Milioti) escapes in the first episode from The Hub, a virtual-reality retreat where she’s been living with her reclusive, tech-giant husband. Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), Hazel’s former partner, is a kind of Elon Musk by way of Stretch Armstrong, all comically brawny arms and megalomaniacal instincts. For a decade, Byron has controlled Hazel’s external existence: her daily schedule, her outfits, even the timing of her orgasms. But, as if to prove Schopenhauer’s argument that possession is the ultimate ambition of a man in love, he concludes he needs authority over Hazel’s mind, too, and that’s what compels her to break away.

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If this setup sounds bleak, it’s neutered by Made for Love’s breezily wacky tone. There’s a friendly dolphin and a strip club called The Scanty Panty and the jokey maiming of an antagonist. One character (played by Noma Dumezweni) is named Fiffany. When Hazel finally arrives at her father’s house after her escape, she finds him in flagrante with a sex doll named Diane. Made for Love overbearingly emphasizes, as if viewers can’t be trusted to intuit it for themselves, that Diane and Hazel are essentially the same—that their partners would rather have an inanimate object as their significant other than the emotional and intellectual challenge of a living, breathing woman.

A still from HBO's 'Made for Love'

Is there power, though, in being an object? Over three seasons, The Girlfriend Experience, produced by Steven Soderbergh, has wondered just that. The Starz series spins off of Soderbergh’s 2009 film, a cold shrug of a story featuring the former adult-film star Sasha Grey as a high-end sex worker in New York at the beginning of the financial crisis. In the first season of the show, Riley Keough played a law student compelled by the power she found in trading sex for money. In the second, Anna Friel and Carmen Ejogo appeared in dual narratives about women trying to conquer systems that seem implacably rigged against them. The world of The Girlfriend Experience is robotic and sometimes surreal; the primary characters begin each season thinking that they can manipulate sex work to their advantage—whether they’re proved right or wrong is up to the audience to decide.

The third season, though, gets a dystopian twist with the addition of emerging technology: Iris (Julia Goldani Telles) is an American student who abandons her postgraduate studies in neuroscience to work for a London start-up that’s analyzing the science of desire. Iris supplements her new career with an evening job providing the “girlfriend experience” to wealthy men, but her motivations, the show suggests, are complex—she doesn’t crave money or control, like Keough’s character, but rather seeks a fuller understanding of human nature. At work, she begins an ambitious project to create an AI that can read and display emotions as efficiently and compellingly as a person can. I’ve watched the first five of 10 episodes, and the question the new season seems to be weighing is, if a program can provide the kinds of relationships some humans most crave—the “girlfriend experience” writ even simpler and more purely transactional—then what will happen to desire?

Popular culture has always been anxious about the incompatibility of love and technological advancement, but the preoccupation tends to manifest in unrealistic ways. If the governing theme of Black Mirror, as the writer Daniel Lavery once suggested, was “What if phones, but too much?,” the concern of so many dystopian parables is “What if love, but digitized?” On Soulmates, an AMC anthology series from Black Mirror writers that debuted last year, the supposed discovery of a “soul particle” led to new technology that could identify one soulmate for every person on the planet. The show’s dramatic crux came from the thought experiment it presented: What would such a breakthrough do to people? Would happy couples throw away stable marriages for the chance of true, delirious love? What would you do if your soulmate had already died? What if your soulmate’s character revealed something about yourself that you didn’t want to know?

My frustration with shows that get wrapped up in hypothetical technology is that they seem to miss the forest for the trees. TV and film have largely ignored many of the real-life developments of recent years that even a decade ago might have seemed plenty dystopian: To spend so much time agonizing over how brain chips or soul uploading or a digital afterlife might affect relationships is to leave things such as Tinder, location services, the sex recession, and the dating gap relatively unexamined. And to speculate obsessively over advancements that don’t yet exist is to gloss over the innovations that do, even when there’s abundant reason to interrogate them. One of the things I appreciated about Forever, Amazon’s offbeat dramedy about a couple who find themselves bound together after death, was the otherwise very real conundrum at the core of its surreal plot: a marriage turned stale by time.

More often, though, we see fantastical, paranoid stories about love and technology. Both 2013’s Her and 2014’s Ex Machina imagined sad-sack male loners losing their heart to beguiling female AIs, as if the most alarming thing humanoid robots could do would be to trick men into falling in love. Black Mirror has imagined technology that can replicate deceased loved ones from their social-media footprint, as well as tools that can blur out unwanted people from someone’s vision or rewind memories to provide proof of infidelity. The 2017 episode “Hang the DJ” placed a couple inside what seemed to be a hermetic world where the length of their relationship would be set at its beginning, only to reveal that they were a virtual version of a real couple using an algorithm to predict their compatibility. These scenarios are fascinating, but they rarely have any meaningful connection with or insight into real life and real love.

Made for Love, at least, does. The series spins a madcap tale that contains a caustic kernel: Byron wants to implant chips in his and Hazel’s brains, to file-share Hazel’s soul, and gain permanent, irrevocable access to every thought, memory, and impulse she’s ever had. He’s an overbearing partner taken to an improbable extreme. In its final two episodes, the show relaxes its frantic mania to let Hazel and Byron truly connect, and to explore where his need for such overwhelming control comes from. “What are you afraid of?” Hazel asks him. “Being alone,” he responds. His fear of isolation has led him to crave the reliability of a partner who’s so governable, she’s not quite human.

The Girlfriend Experience echoes this theory of desire. Iris is as blank and unreadable as the show’s protagonists have historically been, as robotic and preprogrammed in her interactions with men as any AI. But that is exactly what her customers want. Satisfaction, for them, is predicated on their specific needs being anticipated and met, and nothing being asked of them. In both series, characters want other people to act like computer programs, or like the sex doll (price: $6,000) that Hazel’s father happily turns into his companion. If, as these shows argue, what some humans truly want is total control over the object of their desire, then maybe we shouldn’t be so anxious about technology designed to love and be loved. It might not be so dystopian if it can absorb that oppressive need for control and set the rest of us free.