In I Love Dick, Jill Soloway’s new Amazon series, Chris Kraus (Transparent’s Kathryn Hahn) reads her husband Sylvère (Griffin Dunne) a letter she has written to Dick (Kevin Bacon), a renowned scholar with whom she’s infatuated. “Dear Dick,” she reads, laptop aglow, her voice hoarse with desire. “I’ve met charismatic people before. I’ve been warmed by their glow. But I never had someone shatter in one glance the persona that I spent decades constructing.” We flash back to a dreamy, pink-tinted, idealized version of the dinner the three of them just shared. Dick’s hand thrust beneath his belt down into the crotch of his jeans. His penetrating gaze. Sultry music. The warm glow of a fire in the background. Their fingers brushing gently against each other. “I wonder if you knew that when I got up from the table I thought you were following me, stalking your prey,” she reads, as the fantasy dinner continues onscreen. In this dream version, Dick follows her to the bathroom. Caresses her hair. Pushes her up against the wall. “Did you know I was waiting for you? You looked at me all night like you wanted to touch me and strip me, be all gentle with me because you knew how badly I wanted you to be rough. So, so rough.”
Turned on by her passion for Dick, Sylvère breaks their long marital dry spell, boning her doggy-style on the couch right then and there.
If you’ve read I Love Dick, you’ll know that this letter launches a one-sided epistolary romance that will upend Chris’s life and result in the awakening of her feminist artistic consciousness. But, in its unabashed depiction of female desire — particularly coming from a women over 40 (the horror!) — it is also uniquely sexy, in a way that we almost never see on TV.
For the uninitiated, I Love Dick is a 1997 cult book that blurs memoir, fiction, and criticism; one of its devotees, the writer Emily Gould, has called it “the most important book about men and women written in the last century.” Written by the real filmmaker and artist Chris Kraus, who really is married to cultural theorist Sylvère Lotringer, the book chronicles Chris’s obsession, via one-sided correspondence, with a famous scholar, Dick (based on the real-life media theorist Dick Hebdige, who panned the book as “beneath contempt” in New York). She writes these letters first in conjunction with Sylvère, then alone. While the book begins as a typical infatuation story, as the book progresses, Chris begins to scrutinize what it means to be a woman with desire: She takes control of the feelings that have possessed her and uses them to shape her own story. “If I could love you consciously, take an experience so female and subject it to an abstract analytical system, then perhaps I had a chance of understanding something and could go on living,” she writes.
“Her living is the subject, not the Dick of the title,” poet Eileen Myles (and Soloway’s girlfriend, who encouraged her to set the show in Marfa, Texas) writes in an intro to the 2006 edition. “She’s turned female abjection inside out and aimed it at a man.”
As you may have guessed, I Love Dick presents certain unique adaptation challenges (and would certainly never made it to air if Soloway’s Transparent hadn’t been such a success for Amazon). It’s written almost entirely as letters from Chris to Dick, and takes place largely filtered through Chris’s subjective perspective, engaging in long digressions on philosophy and feminist theory and other territory that isn’t exactly TV-friendly. Female desire, even in its least experimental and conceptual form, is hardly entertainment’s favorite subject. But just as Soloway did with Transparent, grounding thorny questions of gender identity and sexual politics in a character-driven story, I Love Dick never feels like you’re being bashed over the head with theory or politics.
Like Transparent, I Love Dick feels like a show about real people, even if they happen to be people of a very specific sort. (“I only want to write about somewhat unlikable Jewish women having really inappropriate ideas about life and sex,” Soloway told Vulture in a recent feature). Indeed, Soloway is very good at bringing a very specific milieu to life, and the show is peppered with details that are particularly funny to to anyone who has ever spent any time at a faculty cocktail party. Kathryn Hahn’s Chris vibrates with anxious energy: She’s magnetic to watch, finding humorous notes in Chris’s intensity, and finding strong chemistry with both male leads. Kevin Bacon as Dick — a swaggering cowboy dreamboat after Nicholas Sparks’s own heart — has the perfect brand of macho aloofness to serve as a cipher for Chris’s desires, while Griffin Dunne both magnetic and abrasive as Sylvère. We may not hear all of Chris’s thoughts and digressions as we do on the page, and there’s certainly something lost in seeing Sylvère and Dick as flesh-and-blood dudes instead of characters in Chris’s story. Yet Soloway masterfully mines the book’s complicated gender dynamics for juicy onscreen drama. As Dick says to Chris, smirking at her over the table during the pilot’s climactic dinner-party scene: “Most films made by women ultimately aren’t that good … I think it’s pretty rare for a woman to make a good film, they have to work from behind their oppression, which makes some bummer movies.” We need no more subtext than the look of horror on Chris’s face.
Soloway has touted I Love Dick, the book, as “the invention of the female gaze,” and in the pilot she finds a cinematic language that rises to that challenge. We see almost everything through Chris’s perspective. When she first meets Dick, we feel her attraction as a sensory symptom: The sound is sucked out of the world around her, and time seems to splinter into freeze-frames. The episode is intercut with quotes from Chris’s letters to Dick, narrated by Chris and spelled out on a red background in thick block text, like Chris’s irrepressible thoughts bursting out from within. In the climactic dinner between Dick, Chris, and Sylvère, we move between close-ups of Chris’s exasperated face to shots of the men as seen through her eyes. Her gaze mirrors the emotional and intellectual ping-pong match playing out onscreen. We watch the frustration in her face heighten as her eyes dart between Sylvère’s oblivious ranting and Dick’s penetrating glances. She watches them individually and then watches them together — the two men leaning towards each other conspiratorially, excluding her from their world — and these POV shots makes the audience feel keenly what it’s like to be in her seat at that table.
Much like Maura, Ali, and Sarah in Transparent, Chris is a complicated woman with complicated wants, and it’s undeniably sexy to see her own these experiences onscreen. As it stands, even our most innovative and celebrated feminist-skewed programming — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, You’re the Worst — tends to peddle a certain idealized version of romance (it often feels like the only way we’re prepared to reckon with stories about self-actualized women is to dress them up in some hyper-stylized gimmick). But the reason Chris’s desire is so compelling is because it never for a moment feels artificial or contrived, and because it’s messy, just like real life. When Chris first falls in love with Dick, and the world seems to move in slow motion; when she storms out of dinner after the men belittle her, aroused and enraged; when she finally sleeps with her husband, turned on by her obsession with another man. Most grown-up women know that love isn’t like in the movies, that women don’t always get to write their own love stories, and that happy endings aren’t as simple as sharing smooches in the rain before retiring peacefully to an old-age home.
“Dear Dick, every letter is a love letter,” says Chris, at the beginning of this show. In this case, those letters may not lead to a Notebook-style fairy-tale romance, but to something even more valuable — the birth of a fully self-actualized female voice. It may not be the happy ending we’re used to, but it’s a happy ending all the same.