Quality Television must be a tricky thing to make. It has to appear smart, but appeal widely; it has to retain an edge, but not one sharp enough to cut into profits. Jill Soloway (the lauded mastermind behind Transparent) and playwright Sarah Gubbins took on quite a challenge when they decided to adapt Chris Kraus’s radical novel/memoir from 1997, I Love Dick. The book documented, with uncomfortable but page-turning candor, Kraus’s dissolving marriage and her unrequited desire for a man named Dick whom she barely knew. Her tale is brilliantly written and complex, and Kraus renders herself as a character in a manner that is at times humiliating, vain, and morally suspect — all reasons why it became one of the most thrilling texts in the feminist canon. Would that Soloway and Gubbins had created a show as radically thrilling. Unfortunately, their eight-episode series guts the book, cleans it up, spices it up for a middlebrow palate, only to create a near-parody of the story they seem to want to tell.
The series begins as Chris (Kathryn Hahn), a filmmaker, and her husband, Sylvère (Griffin Dunne), an academic, drive from New York to Marfa, Texas, where he’ll spend time at a writer’s residency as she goes off to the Venice International Film Festival. Upon arrival, Chris’s plans change when she learns her most recent film was bounced from the festival — and when she falls for Dick Jarrett (Kevin Bacon), the famed sculptor who founded the prestigious arts institution hosting Sylvère’s stay. Simmering at the crossroads of failure and obsession, Chris proceeds to write a slew of love letters addressed to Dick.
What follows are interwoven stories of how Chris’s letters manage to “woke” not only her marriage, but also the women and men of Marfa. First, her sex life with Sylvère is reignited, after he discovers what she’s up to and asks her to read one aloud. Later, some of the letters are purloined by the handsome trans townie and aspiring playwright Devon (Roberta Colindrez), who intends to use them as a text for a performance. Chris’s words help Devon seduce Toby (or is it the other way around?), a young art historian possessed of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty (India Salvor Menuez). Even Paula (Lily Mojekwu), the long-suffering curator at Dick’s institute, begins to feel the change in the air and asserts herself against her boss’s oppressive tastes in art.
Soloway and Gubbins attempt, in their adaptation, to negotiate and update, with “good feminist” politics, the straightness and whiteness of Kraus’s story, but unfortunately they do so in part by undermining the three lead characters, turning them into caricatures who are never actually funny. This is a failure of craft, of dimensionality, not one of correctness. Who doesn’t enjoy a laugh at the self-involved white and privileged, except perhaps the self-involved white and privileged? Disappointingly, the jokes never land — are never sharp or aimed well enough — leaving a vacuum of interest, and entertainment, at the center of the show. It doesn’t help matters that the folie à trois between Chris, Dick, and Sylvère is wholly unconvincing due to the actors’ palpable lack of chemistry, sexual and otherwise. Between Hahn, Bacon, and Dunne, for some reason it’s all desert, no heat.
“Sylvère, this is very traumatic!” Chris screams when he locks her out of the house. It isn’t, and certainly not to Sylvère, who has chosen to dedicate his life to becoming “a walking compendium of the Holocaust.” (The Holocaust oddly recurs a few times in the show, not as a moment of gravity, but as a punchline — a tonal problem.) Then there’s Dick, the “great” artist, who doles out inanities like: “I love a straight line. Straight line is perfection,” which he tells Chris with a straight face, defending one of his sculptures. One could take it as a joke, but alas it’s a marker of Dick’s character evolution: Later, we see him outside in the sunset, gathering rocks and organizing them into — wait for it — curvy lines.
Capital-A Art is another recurring punchline throughout I Love Dick — or rather, the show wants to have its cake and eat it too with regard to the value and importance of art: It’s a snooty, absurd thing, and it’s a legitimate thing too. Of course it’s all of that, depending, but at this moment, while the NEA is being fully dismantled, you might hope our sisters-in-arms out there in TV Money Land would wade in the complexity of what it might mean to be a thoughtful artist, a creative mind, in anti-intellectual America. Chris’s movie is a failure (and we’re treated to a clip that tells us why); Dick’s sculptures are a parody of macho land art, cut boulders bullied together in wide-open spaces.
One exception: a confrontation between Devon and Toby when the latter reclines nude in front of an oil riggers’ camp and broadcasts it online as a performance piece. “Seems to me like you’re real busy inflicting your privilege on all these working-class, mostly brown dudes just so somebody out there, or you, can see what might happen,” Devon says.
Toby replies, “It’s an exercise in the mutual debasement of foreign bodies invading foreign lands.”
Devon’s having none of it: “You’re using these guys without their consent….It’s fucking unethical.”
It’s a rigged conversation — you’re going to side with Devon — but at least it’s a conversation worth having.
In the season’s strangest and most compelling episode, Chris, Devon, Toby, and Paula speak directly to the camera about their sexual histories and why Dick was so formative to their constructions of themselves. Dick is clearly the show’s symbol of toxic patriarchy, but neither the characters nor the series itself examines how it is that he receives, retains, and wields that power. What made Kraus’s story so resonant was the way in which she laid bare how she willingly — even masochistically — played into systemic gendered narratives. None of us, she made the point, owns our own narrative outright. If only the show exercised such radical storytelling powers.
I Love Dick premieres on Amazon Prime on May 12.