Amazon’s new comedy series I Love Dick is based on a book by Chris Kraus, co-created (along with playwright Sarah Gubbins) by Transparent‘s Jill Soloway, and starring Kathryn Hahn — who played the lead in Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight and has been featured prominently in all three seasons of Transparent as the Pfefferman family rabbi — as a fictionalized version of Kraus. Given the creators involved, the star, and the source material, of course I Love Dick is going to be primarily about Kraus, who travels with husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne) to an artists’ collective in Marfa, TX and becomes obsessed — sexually, emotionally, creatively — with the eponymous Dick (Kevin Bacon) in charge of the place.
But what if it wasn’t?
The version of I Love Dick (it debuts on Friday; I’ve seen all eight episodes of the first season) that’s about the complicated triangle that develops between Dick, Chris, and Sylvere is a weird, fascinating, alternately lovely and funny show. It requires a keen understanding of the friendly but sexless state of Chris’s marriage, and the way that she’s able to use her fixation on Dick — whom she doesn’t even like, particularly after he dismisses the entire idea of women filmmakers like her by saying that they “have to work from behind their oppression, which makes for some bummer movies” — to rekindle the spark with Sylvere for a while. After they have thunderous sex while she reads aloud from the various letters she’s written to Dick, she insists, “What happened in there has nothing to do with him.” It female gazes the hell out of Bacon — who, even at 58, can still wear jeans and a cowboy hat like in the Footloose (or, if you prefer, Tremors) days — and lets Chris have a very active, amusing fantasy life about Dick, including a daydream where he shears a baby lamb, presented as the most erotic thing she’s ever experienced. And it’s dryly funny in unexpected ways: Sylvere is a Holocaust scholar, leading Dick to refer to Chris derisively as “the Holocaust wife.”
But the way Chris’s Dick focus awakens both of their dormant creative impulses, as well as her sex life with Sylvere, quickly starts burning itself out, particularly since all three characters are extremely grating and self-involved. That’s a complaint that often gets hurled at Transparent, and while I wouldn’t defend most of the behavior of the Pfefferman clan, that’s a show explicitly about the damage done by generations of secrets and lies and abuse, and the emotional stakes are high enough to generate some mitigating sympathy. Chris and Sylvere are just… annoying and Dick comes off only slightly better because the show is as in lust with him as Chris is. The show’s aware that they’re all difficult — Chris only winds up staying in Marfa because one of her movies got rejected by a festival when she stubbornly refused to remove a song she didn’t have the rights to put on the soundtrack — but that self-awareness is counteracted by how small their problems are compared to what pains they all are.
It also feels like by far the thinnest part of the world that Soloway and Gubbins have built out of Kraus’ book: enough to power a feature-length story, but grating by the end of the season. It’s fun at first hearing Hahn curse up a storm as Chris realizes she’s stuck in Marfa with a man she loathes but can’t stop thinking about and writing letters to, or to see Bacon give his most relaxed and confident performance in years, but the dynamic between the three is exhausting well before the season ends.
Then comes the fifth installment, “A Short History of Weird Girls,” and I Love Dick for a half hour becomes something very different, and seemingly far more durable.
The episode opens with Chris addressing the camera while delivering another of her “Dear Dick” confessions — Soloway turning us all into Dicks for a little while — as she delivers some overdue backstory on how she and the much older Sylvere got together, before her attention turns away from her own frustrations for once, as she asks, “Dear Dick: What if we all started writing you letters?” And from there we get similar first-person histories from characters we’ve barely gotten to know at that point, all of whom have their own kinds of Dick obsessions: queer playwright Devon (Roberta Colindrez), museum curator Paula (Lily Mojekwu), and flirty art historian Toby (India Menuez). It is, like the rest of the series, gorgeous to look at, but each character sketch goes much deeper in its few minutes than the season as a whole does with the Chris/Dick/Sylvere rivalry. And it left me wishing that these actors and storytellers had just used the triangle as an excuse to park the audience in Marfa for a more ensemble take on the place: both the fellows in Dick’s program, and the locals who have grown used to the eccentrics who have slowly taken over the town.
Because Chris is a filmmaker, and because she’s surrounded by artists and scholars and philosophers, I Love Dick often analyzes and explains itself as the story goes, offering up a media theory course embedded within the love triangle. At one point, for instance, Chris laments that she pours her soul into each movie she makes, “And as soon as you make it, it gets compared to every movie that’s ever been made. And something that was so big becomes as tiny as the tiniest Russian nesting doll.”
There’s nothing quite like I Love Dick on TV, so Chris — and Soloway, Gubbins, and everyone else involved in making it — can rest easy that there won’t be many obvious comparison points. Chris would also surely object to the thesis of this review, suggesting it’s not fair to judge the work based on what I wish it was rather than what it really is. But the version of Dick that I prefer isn’t purely hypothetical; it lingers in the background of the entire season, and gets to come to the forefront for one of the year’s best episodes of television, period. The actual show feels better-suited to being a movie that would put Soloway back on the festival circuit — and, unlike her heroine, she’d be flexible enough to keep it from being rejected.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org