Another Look: With “I Love Dick,” Jill Soloway aims to confound and confront.
When I first watched the pilot for “I Love Dick” a few months ago on Amazon, I wasn’t sure whether or not the show would get picked up to series. It wasn’t for lack of quality: the pilot was electric, if occasionally uneven, setting a fascinating precedent for a remaining season. It’s just that the tone of this new show, the latest journey into the mind of “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, was not by any means easy. In fact, it was difficult: brazen, even confrontational at times. You could feel Soloway poking you in the chest, demanding a response, immersing the viewer in a world that was rough and raw and unapologetically female.
I’m not sure what people will make of the entire first season of “I Love Dick” now that it’s streaming in its entirety on Amazon Prime. I’m also not sure where this show could possibly go in a second season — having seen all eight episodes, I’m fairly certain that season one of “I Love Dick” tells its story completely and with great confidence (I’m unsure as to whether or not the show was technically billed as a limited series, but it certainly reads as one). I also think, in spite of the show’s flaws and its occasional lack of subtlety, that it is one of the most striking and original creations I have seen this year — in either film or television. If you can adjust yourself to the rocky, unpredictable emotional beats of this show, there is a depth of psychology here — as there was and is in “Transparent” — that is simply staggering. It’s deeper, darker and fucking weirder than almost anything else on T.V. right now.
To be clear, there are a lot of reasons why ordinary, undemanding viewers won’t warm up to this show. Honestly, I don’t think Soloway is interested in reaching them. She seems to have made the show for herself, and for like-minded folks, though there is a humanity and universality in “I Love Dick” that only begins to reveal itself in the spellbinding final run of episodes that closes out the first season.
It’s also hard to describe what the show’s about to someone who isn’t familiar with it: you could say it’s about a marriage in crisis mode, the inner life of an austere cowboy sculptor named Dick Jarrett, and the vibrant arts community of Marfa, Texas, and you still wouldn’t get close to scratching the surface. This is a show that you have to experience: as steeped as it is in academia and analysis, Soloway is still making it tough for her critics to write about her work. The result is a show that trades in discomfort and intends, explicitly, to provoke.
Personally, I found the show’s jagged stylistic excursions and unvarnished, graphic depiction of a psychosexual tryst between three very different people to be absolutely thrilling. To be clear, I tend to enjoy these kinds of stories when they’re done well. I enjoy languorous works about difficult, complicated people that slow down and take the time to really get to know their subjects — irascible though they might be. Noah Baumbach’s underrated “Margot at the Wedding” is just one fairly recent example of this same kind of story, and there are big chunks in “Transparent” that traffic in that same narrative vein.
What’s so exciting about “I Love Dick” is how it smashes conventional plotting to bits and pieces and forms a kind of cracked human mural out of the remains. It can be difficult to find the show’s wavelength at times: scenes begin and end at odd junctures, the ventures into dream logic are potently uncanny, and the show is punctuated with Godardian epistolary text cards and a very New Wave-y use of freeze frame at heightened emotional moments.
There are times when the appalling behavior of the characters elicits disbelieving laughter. Other times, the show dives into unsparing naturalist drama that is almost too painful to process. There are other moments where characters simply shed their clothes and break out into song and dance, because why not? “I Love Dick” is the kind of show that can seem difficult or vexing in the moment and ye it is, above all else, a righteously powerful and uncompromised work — one that I found myself chewing on for days later and recommending to any friend who would lend me an ear.
After the “I Love Dick” pilot, where struggling independent filmmaker Chris (the sensational Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne) move to Marfa and make the acquaintance of the enigmatic Dick (Kevin Bacon), things get off to a somewhat uneven start. The season’s second episode, “The Conceptual Fuck,” is its weakest, as it lays the table for the couple’s budding obsession with this reclusive aesthete. As Dick emerges into larger focus in the later episodes, we begin to form a fuller understanding of exactly who this guy is.
Our immediate impression is that Dick is one of those stoic alpha dog artists whose works — imposing boulders dotted in a snake-like line across a bare patch of desert, formidable figures that one character calls “steel and concrete cocks” — are as flinty as they are phallic (they also require significant amounts of money and manpower to make, a point the show does take note of). Dick’s self-imposed exile recalls that of authors-turned-cult-heroes like Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy: artists whose apparent invisibility increases their cache. In spite of his antisocial nature, Dick oversees an artist’s residency in Marfa, one whose purpose he increasingly finds himself questioning. Sylvere, an unctuous intellectual who is writing a text about the Holocaust that we suspect he may never finish, is supposed to be working under Dick’s tutelage, though he finds himself far more interested in the messy particulars of the man’s personal life than anything else.
Though Bacon and Dunne both give first-rate, searing performances, this is Kathryn Hahn’s show. Her Chris is one hell of a creation: scary-smart, stubborn, temperamental, prone to flights of fancy and bouts of anger and hysteria. She’s one of the most fully realized characters I’ve seen on any television show this year, and Hahn all but disappears into the role. To call her performance brave would be an understatement.
The point of the show is not Chris’s girlish romantic fixation with Dick: that would be too easy. In lusting after the ideal that Dick represents, Chris ends up unearthing new revelations about her own history and psychology that reveal how ultimately uninterested Soloway and her team are in another tired story about creative male solitude. This is the most intensely personal vision of the female gaze that I’ve seen on a T.V. show in my lifetime, and while it’s not always pretty, it feels like a refreshing product of honest experience and autobiography. Some viewers might find “I Love Dick” opaque, but what I found was a rich reservoir of brutal honesty that touched on a kind of enervating nerve that most dramas are scared to graze. In any case, Hahn gives a masterful and fearless turn here — even better than her stint as the lovely Rabbi Raquel on “Transparent,” which is saying something — and if she’s not nominated for an Emmy by this time next year, then there is no justice in this world.
The trio at the heart of “I Love Dick” makes for fascinating company, but there are also beautifully realized characters on the sidelines. Devon (Roberta Colindrez), Chris’ laid-back, pot-puffing lesbian neighbor, struck me as one of the pilot’s most interesting creations. Though she only had one or two scenes in the first installment, I already wanted more of her. Thankfully, Soloway seemingly did too: she’s given Devon quite an arc throughout this first season, one where she mobilizes the freaks and outsiders of Marfa into something resembling a D.I.Y. artistic awakening.
Another actress who makes an impression is India Menuez, playing a free-spirited hedonist named Toby who is concealing some serious personal damage. Toby is a character we’ve hung out with more in films and television: she’s he kind of self-sabotaging drama queens we see frequently on “Girls”. She may be brilliant, she may be crazy, and she is attracted to chaos like flies to manure. And yet, the creators of “I Love Dick” are too patient and too empathetic to paint the character in condescending strokes. Though Toby might represent the nadir of art in the 21st century — she’s a student of hardcore pornography whose latest project involves her lying nude in a “man camp,” only to become a kind of accidental social media phenomenon — she also operates from a place of purity and desire, and Soloway affords the character more humanity than I ever thought to be possible.
The direction of “I Love Dick” is some of the most bold and sustained I’ve seen on a television show in quite a while: it feels more like an impressionistic indie film split up into eight chapters than a plotted season of television comedy. It can take some time to acclimate yourself to the very intense pace that Soloway has concocted for this particular story, but once you have, the show can become an addiction. Soloway directs the pilot episode as well as the fifth, “A Short History of Weird Girls,” which unfolds as a series of monologues given by the show’s female characters — Chris, Devon, Toby, etc. — about the specifics of their sexual awakenings. The episode may strike some viewers as indulgent — the kind of thing best kept in a diary and not shared with the world — but where else on T.V. are you going to see something that so pitilessly explores female sexuality without making any apologies about it? Aiding Soloway in the show’s construction are “Boys Don’t Cry” director Kimberly Pierce (who directs “The Conceptual Fuck”) and “American Honey” and “Fish Tank” filmmaker Andrea Arnold, who lends her unfiltered sense of visual melodicism to four of the season’s eight episodes. Arnold has a gift for capturing rupture and rapture in uncomfortably personal terms, and she manages to service this show’s very specific vision while still leaving her own inimitatable authorial stamp on the episodes she directs.
As I’ve said before, I do understand the aversion certain viewers might have with this show. In our highfalutin assessment of art, critics can sometimes forget that there are large swaths of the population who simply want to be entertained — who want to tune out for two hours at a time, turn their brains off, and forget about how scary and difficult the world can be (check the box office receipts for “Kong: Skull Island” and the “Guardians of the Galaxy” sequel if you don’t believe me). There is an elemental truth to this way of watching movies and television, and I myself partake in it frequently — so I don’t disappear up my own ass.
That said, “I Love Dick” is not a show where you can tune out and turn your brain off. It is combative, emotionally brutal, wrought with paradoxes. It demands that you engage with it. To which I say to my readers: engage, even if it makes you feel weird. Shit, that’s what the show is designed to do. Because there is an immense sense of splendor that exists in this show, which is about a lot — how academics live in a self-protected bubble, how unrequited lust can turn into mania (if you were a heterosexual woman, could you resist cowboy Kevin Bacon?), how arts communities that are not in Los Angeles or New York can still possess a kind of wild vitality — that is unlike anything I’ve seen in 2017. My advice: take the plunge. Season One Grade: A.