tv review

Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick Has a Mesmerizing Energy

Kathryn Hahn in I Love Dick. Photo: Amazon

I didn’t read I Love Dick, but I’ve gathered from reviews that the Amazon series based on Chris Kraus’s memoir-fiction hybrid doesn’t capture the mysterious, self-critical, and cathartic qualities of the book, about how a writer’s obsession with a sociologist and media theorist draws her into a self-destructive spiral. True or not, the version from Jill Soloway (Transparent) and Chicago playwright Sarah Gubbins is its own thing regardless. And it would’ve been anyway, given the distinctive personalities of the folks adapting it — a group of women that includes a veritable murderer’s row of notable indie directors, including Andrea Arnold (Fishtank) and Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry). Focused on the personal and professional melodramas happening at an arts colony in Marfa, Texas, this half-hour series works like gangbusters part of the time, seems puzzlingly disconnected from its supporting characters at other times, and elsewhere generates a laid-back but mesmerizing energy. Soloway, Gubbins, and their collaborators are skilled at showing deluded, often annoying, but typically compelling creative people stumbling through life and often falling into pits they dug themselves.

The show also gives series co-producer Kevin Bacon, who co-stars as the guru-like figurehead of the colony, a chance to be Clint Eastwood — not any particular Eastwood character from an Eastwood film, but Eastwood as he probably was in the ’60s and ’70s, when he was a tall, handsome young star who dressed like a Santa Fe painter, held forth on the glories and miseries of individualism, and probably invited women up to his bachelor pad to listen to Thelonious Monk albums. I’d be curious to rewatch parts of this series as part of a double bill with Eastwood’s 1995 adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County, because the basic story is an inversion of the one in Bridges: This time the full-of-himself yet magnetic pseudo-cowboy philosopher character, Bacon’s Dick (yes, I actually typed that), is the one who’s rooted in small-town life, and it’s a hungry and dissatisfied woman (a New York filmmaker named Chris, played by Kathryn Hahn) who blows into town with her historian husband Sylvère (Griffin Dunne) and, in her clumsy and overly declamatory way, breaks him out of the cage of his preconceptions, as his very existence does for her.

I’m making the show sound like a desert-parched romance of the doomed, and it’s not that at all. It’s a comedy about how stupid smart people can be when they’re stricken by yearning or lust, and how both conditions give people permission to act out, flout taboo, and otherwise jolt themselves free of whatever ruts they think they’ve gotten stuck in. The most striking thing about I Love Dick is the anthropological exactness with which it captures a particular subset of the American arts scene, the bourgeois bubble of residencies, grants, retreats, and the like. Dick’s colony is summer camp for people with creative block. (Sylvère is the one who’s supposed to be there; Chris sticks around for her own reasons.) The place has an almost cultlike vibe, thanks mainly to Dick and his flinty-eyed stare. People come from all over the country to hear his nuggets of homespun, New Agey wisdom and unlock their potential or some such. I was never entirely clear on what, exactly, this guy does, or why anyone thinks he’s qualified to do it. But I don’t think it matters, because the creative people who hang on to his every word don’t need to see his résumé. (In one scene, he gathers all the artists in a gallery, tells them to walk toward the art that draws their attention, then sends them all home and says he’ll see them next week. Next week!) He’s just an excuse to do things they need to do, personally as well as artistically, and it doesn’t hurt that he looks damned good in a ten-gallon hat and urban-cowboy shirts-jeans-boots combos.

Chris doesn’t even need to speak with him to become fixated on him and almost immediately begin writing a chain of erotically tinged letters that might or might not end up in Dick’s hands. I got the feeling that Chris was so bored in an increasingly nonsexual marriage to a much older husband (perhaps a bit guru-like himself, back in the day) and so angry and depressed over her artsy, pseudo-European feature film getting pulled from a Venice festival, that if Dick hadn’t have come along to liven things up, some other dick might’ve. (There’s an element of klutzy rebellion against misogyny, too; both Dick and Sylvère condescend to Chris in different but equally irritating ways.)

This scenario doesn’t play out the way you think it might, though. Instead of a furtive affair breaking out between Chris and Dick, with Sylvère withering away in despair, plotting revenge or embarking on a retaliatory affair of his own, Chis draws her husband into her obsession, and for a while it acts as an aphrodisiac. The first few episodes have quite a bit of semi-explicit sex, but it’s all keyed into the characters’ psychologies, and it’s self-deprecatingly funny and awkward as well as hot. Like the conversations filled with vague bromides, stolen aphorisms, and petty declarations of intent, the trysts are believable as encounters that might actually happen; the directors and actors play them in a way that invites us to laugh at other people’s wild passion, which is what a lot of us might be doing anyway, especially if the show were solemn and kitschy, which it definitely isn’t. It takes the characters’ emotions seriously while refusing to validate their ridiculously inflated self-images.

The series is very good at capturing the contradictory feelings that ambitious, educated, hyperverbal women like Chris sometimes have when confronted with guys like Dick, who’s a fraud in some ways and sort of knows it, but doesn’t seem to mind that Chris knows it, and who amps up his chosen identity — the strong, silent, macho cowboy-artist who can see into everyone’s souls, women’s especially — to an often annoying degree. (He brags that he doesn’t read books because he’s “post-idea.”) There’s a self-loathing excitement to Chris’s fixation on this man. The show understands her, and the men, too. Chris confesses a need for emotional and sexual self-annihilation; she’s lost at sea, and Dick is the reef she’s decided to dash herself against. Between Hahn’s hilarious, Catherine Keener–like overarticulations, Dunne’s note-perfect randy-old-professor vibe, and Bacon’s rodeo painting poses (Dick comports himself as if he’s taking part in a photo shoot even when he’s alone on his ranch), you get why all three characters would give themselves clearance to dive into this whirlpool of dunderheaded desire.

I Love Dick is not so convincing when it steps behind the confines of its central triangle and develops parallel subplots for the younger characters, whose ranks include Sylvère and Chris’s rental caretaker, a lesbian playwright named Devon (Roberta Colindrez), and Toby (India Menuez), who tells Sylvère that she got a Guggenheim fellowship for watching hard-core pornography in a nonsexual way and appreciating it as a series of shapes. The series does yeoman’s work in trying to give these characters and others the same weight as Chris, Sylvère, and Dick, but it never quite gets there. Despite amusing and sometimes affecting narrative overlap and points of connection (the younger artists getting ahold of Chris’s letters and reading them aloud in an inspirational circle; Devon deciding to write a play about a married woman from New York who “hates herself, and her husband kind of hates her, too”) these bits are all a bit too Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the show’s understanding of them often seems to be coming from the outside in rather than from inside out, as is the case with the 40-somethings in the main triangle (odd considering this is a Soloway project). This is also, unfortunately, one of many recent series that runs out of gas well before you want it to; a shorter run of episodes or more ruthlessness about pacing and cast size might’ve helped with that, albeit at the expense of fresh points of view on the main action. But it’s sexy, funny cringe-comedy with a surprising affinity for serendipitous, cosmically beautiful moments. It’s at its best watching the characters think about what they’ve done to themselves, and what they can’t wait to do next.

Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick Has a Mesmerizing Energy