There are so many things about I Love Dick that, on paper, make me want to throw my television into the deepest parts of the sea. Amazon’s adaptation of Chris Kraus’s autobiographical-ish novel — helmed by Sarah Gubbins and Transparent creator Jill Soloway — is just as self-indulgent as the thought experiments acted out by its artist characters, all bored by their own brilliance in the sun-bleached desert of Marfa, Texas. People talk in purposefully obtuse circles, displaying their academic bonafides like peacock feathers, useful to draw attention and absolutely nothing else.
But even if I Love Dick starts out as an artistic exercise, it quickly transforms one woman’s frustration and boiling libido into something more complex, gnarled, even uncomfortably raw.
After floundering filmmaker Chris (Kathryn Hahn) meets sculptor cowboy Dick (Kevin Bacon), her visceral lust inspires her to write letter after letter to him detailing passionate and furious fantasies. Having just moved to Marfa with her husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), Chris doesn’t ever intend to send the letters his way, or act upon their dirty secrets — but they still continue to get less hypothetical with every passing day.
Her fascination with Dick doesn’t just lead to a real obsession, but a series of personal revolutions both within herself and the people surrounding her. Plot-wise, not a whole lot actually happens in I Love Dick, but that hardly matters. As brilliantly acted by Hahn and directed by Soloway, Andrea Arnold, and Kimberly Pierce, I Love Dick slowly becomes such an unflinching meditation on intimacy that it’s just as hard to keep watching as it is to look away.
I Love Dick tells stories of suffocating desire with unsparing detail
Chris’s voiceover opens every episode with “Dear Dick,” and her tone evolves from reverent to downright belligerent over the course of the season’s eight episodes. These introductions — ripped from Krause’s book itself — set the stage for what’s to come. They inform the reluctant object of Chris’s affection (if you can call it that) that “every letter is a love letter,” that she wants “to have the kind of sex that makes breathing feel like fucking,” that on second thought, “this is not a love letter; it’s a manifesto.”
This latter sentiment certainly holds true for the book that inspired the series, which is written as a series of letters to a man named Dick whom author Chris Kraus lusted after from afar, and has achieved controversial cult status since it was first published 20 years ago. Kraus’s explicit declarations of sexual desire and unapologetic obsessing over a man she barely knew are, to say the least, uncomfortable.
As a TV show, I Love Dick’s makes the smart choice to lean into the book’s aggression, giving Hahn the freedom to fully let loose. The series embraces every sordid, horny detail of Chris’s desire, staring viewers directly (and often literally) in the face and daring us to blink. In Hahn’s capable hands, Chris is a snarling knot of pent-up energy, kinetic and wild and constantly vibrating at a frequency that might be hard to see, but is all too easy to feel.
It’s clear that Chris is unraveling, but also that her fixation on Dick is igniting some long-dormant passion. With these letters, she ends up tapping into both a sexual and artistic expression she hasn’t been able to access in years. (In case you’re now wondering if this is yet another show about a brilliant but tortured artist — like I did at the beginning — I Love Dick lets us see a snippet of Chris’s latest film, which can only be described as “Yeeeesh.”)
Still, one of the show’s best decisions is to expand its story beyond Chris’s limited perspective. Sylvere — an older intellectual who moves them to Marfa on a grant to continue his Holocaust studies — lets himself get sucked into the letters’ sizzling prose, which kickstarts his own libido and makes him remember what it’s like to be so turned on he can hardly stand it. Their neighbor Devon (Roberta Colindrez) boils with restlessness, drafting off Chris and Sylvere’s existential entanglements to find inspiration for her own writing (which, in her case, becomes a play based on Chris). Even Dick — who starts as nothing more than a swaggering cipher for everyone else’s desires and fears — ends up betraying something like a loneliness all his own.
But for as good as Hahn, Dunne, Colindrez, and Bacon are — and make no mistake, they are great — what makes I Love Dick truly unforgettable is the show’s arresting and endlessly revealing direction.
It’s rare to see women’s desire portrayed so starkly onscreen, let alone feel it
Even if I didn’t already know Soloway has been approaching her work as a product of “the female gaze,” I would’ve immediately understood as much upon starting I Love Dick’s first episode.
What film critic Laura Mulvey famously referred to as “the male gaze” (i.e., the default perspective of a heterosexual man) is joyfully inverted on this series, with the camera regularly tracking women’s eyes as they look Dick and each other up and down. (Every episode, with the exception of Jim Frohna’s “This Is Not a Love Letter,” is directed by a woman.) Chris’s salivating daydreams are so languid and claustrophobic you can feel her desperate thirst pulsing through the screen. Devon’s longing for wan porn expert Toby (India Menuez) — not to mention Toby’s unblinking curiosity surrounding sex and the world in general — burns as hot as the rusty desert sand surrounding them.
There’s no better episode to illustrate exactly how Soloway captures what it means to be a woman feeling serious lust than I Love Dick’s fifth episode, the season’s best and most unusual chapter by a long shot. “A Short History of Weird Girls” opens with Chris writing her most honest letter yet, detailing her own fraught sexual history and the ways she was so often encouraged to tamp down her desire, even as it threatened to burst her chest wide open. But then the episode pivots to Devon’s story of her own sexual history, and then to Toby’s, and finally to that of Paula (Lily Mojekwu), Dick’s under-appreciated curator at a local gallery.
The four women speak directly into the camera, their pasts unfolding behind them, their guts spilling out. With every reveal of a sexual proclivity or searing heartbreak comes honesty and clarity on how women’s sexuality is so often policed, examined, and maybe most wrenching of all, dismissed.
As these women tell it, Dick functions as an escape for Chris, a role model for Devon, a curiosity for Toby, a brilliant frustration for Paula. For them and the show itself, Dick is everything, and nothing at all.
The first season of I Love Dick is now streaming on Amazon Prime.