Discomfort can be an extremely effective dramatic tool. Whether implemented by the writers and directors who work behind the camera, or the performers in front of it, the queasiest onscreen experiences can often render similar feelings among viewers. Sometimes these dramatized vexations are too much, yet when someone like Transparent creator Jill Soloway employs them in I Love Dick, her latest outing with Amazon, it’s a thing of beauty. The Kathryn Hahn- and Kevin Bacon-starring series hopeful — available today as part of Amazon’s pilot season, alongside JCVJ and The Tick — paints a portrait of its artistic, academic, and altogether aimless characters that’s so uncomfortable, audiences will have difficulty keeping their eyes both on and off their televisions.
Consider the first time Hahn’s Chris Crouse and Bacon’s Dick Jarrett meet. The only reason for it is Chris’ husband, the Holocaust scholar Sylvère (Griffin Dunne), whom Dick has invited to stay and work at his institute’s residency in Marfa, Texas. All Chris cares about is her movie being selected for a screening at the Venice Film Festival, which she plans to attend right after dropping off Sylvère. Unfortunately, the festival pulls the film when they discover Chris used a band’s music, without permission, after they filed a cease and desist order against her. Hence her chance encounter with Dick at his institute’s reception.
Between numerous awkward conversations about her being the “Holocaust scholar wife,” Chris finally eyes the titular character sitting by himself and rolling a cigarette. They stare at each other for a moment before she finally approaches him and introduces herself. And it’s unbelievably awkward.
CHRIS: Hi. Dick, right?
DICK: That’s me.
CHRIS: Love that you just go by Dick, because usually someone would… You know if one is born a Richard, they would… Rich, Rick, Richie, Ricky… There’s so many…
DICK: Just Dick.
It’s one thing for a writer or a director to compose an awkward scene between characters, let alone an excellent one. However, the combination of Soloway’s stellar record with Transparent and I Love Dick writer Sarah Gubbins’ playwriting background insured from the start this would be a pilot worth watching. They do right by Chris Kraus’ experimental 1997 novel of the same name, even though some feared it would be a mindless adaptation.
Then again, thanks to Hahn’s performance as Chris, I Love Dick is never really just Soloway or Gubbins’ vehicle. It’s Hahn’s. Dick might find his name in the title, and Kevin Bacon might be Kevin Bacon, but I Love Dick is all about Hahn and the manner in which she brings Chris’ discomforts to life. The show tells an incredibly uncomfortable, but funny, story about professional failure, personal dissatisfaction and — as Chris explains in her letter to Dick — “obsession.” Namely, her obsession with him: themes anyone watching can relate to, even if they don’t love Dick.
Following a disastrous dinner with her husband and the institute head, Chris composes a letter, one that, despite Dick’s insistence her former Venice Film Festival entry “sounds horrible,” and that her inability to explain or defend it makes it sounds like she’s being “crushed by something,” objectifies the gracious-but-arrogant host, one that calls him “charismatic,” claims he “[shattered] in one glance the persona [she’d] spent decades constructing,” and produces a reinterpretation of the dinner scene in which Dick follows Chris into the bathroom while leaving Sylvère behind at the table.
The letter itself doesn’t seem all that awkward, unless one imagines a scenario in which a man writes it to a woman he desires. And then there’s the fact that Chris reads the letter aloud to her husband while he ogles her amorously. Instead of expressing jealousy, rage or any number of other negative (and typically male) responses to the letter, Sylvère decides to end the couple’s “drought” — with his wife’s involvement, of course.
All of this results in yet another example of Soloway’s brand of dramatic comedy, in which characters confront major life changes in the face of embarrassment. It’s a kind of television that isn’t always easy to watch, but with Hahn’s brilliant performance pulling everything toward it like the sun in this solar system, it’s impossible not to want more.