The premise of I Love Dick — Amazon's new series, released on Friday — sounds like the alt-right's fever dream: A hardcore feminist artist gets obsessed with a hypermasculine man's man who laughs at her art and rejects her advances. The irony is delicious. How will she cope with the embarrassment? The hypocrisy? The ugly biological imperatives trumping all her shadowy ideas about female art? Let's face it: It's bad enough when a woman too old to be nubile gets obsessed with a guy who doesn't want her and refuses to be rejected. It's desperate. It's pathetic. It's scary, even! But it's so much worse when a feminazi evangelist falls for a cowboy fantasy. Her ideals and theories are useless against a guy who embodies alpha-male domination, dismisses everything she cares about, and produces linear brick-based snake-adjacent man-art. How delightfully humiliating. How is this to be borne?
Welcome to I Love Dick, Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins' sun-baked adaptation of Chris Kraus' 1997 feminist cult classic. It takes on this question and the results — starring Kathryn Hahn as Chris, Griffin Dunne as her husband Sylvere, and Kevin Bacon as the cowboy — are totally fascinating. This is not a show whose moves you can predict. It meanders into a variety of positions and poses and artistic statements and bumps those layers of distance and irony up against basic drives like gossip and lust. Our characters are petty and horny and silly in all the ways artists tend to be; they're also riveting. They make it hard to look away.
The show begins along familiar and embarrassing lines: Chris, a filmmaker, accompanies her husband to Marfa, Texas, where he's been named a fellow by Dick, the head honcho whose art institute reigns supreme. Chris' film hits a snag (she failed to secure the rights to the music), so she's stuck in the hot dusty fishbowl of Marfa with nothing to do. Bored, creatively frustrated, surrounded by artists who don't consider her one, she sets her sights on Dick — an artist himself, albeit one totally uninterested in feminist art. Chris mentions over dinner that she's a filmmaker — her movie, she gabbles, is about society's crushing expectations. "Sounds horrible," Dick says. "Sounds like you're being crushed by something. Is she any good?" he says, turning to her husband. (Bacon's absolute dismissal of her here, his contempt, is exquisite.) "My guess is that she doesn't want to be a filmmaker," he says, and turns back to her: "because if you wanted to be a filmmaker, you'd be one. It's just a question of desire," he says, "which you don't possess."
Dick seals his fate with those words. Hahn plays Chris with a pleasant mixture of perceptive resilience and total surrender. Chris doesn't just possess desire, she's possessed by it. Gladly. She writes 250 letters worth of it. She clobbers Dick with professions of lust and love. Finally, she delivers them. When he fails to reciprocate — and when Sylvere responds poorly — she starts plastering her letters around town. As love letters go, they're fantastic — engrossing, chatty, erudite, erotic. They're also, of course, solipsistic — studies in projection. She doesn't know Dick. No one does; he's the town's resident genius, respected and left to himself. In Chris' hands, he becomes an unwilling interlocutor, an idea she can address and seduce and (when necessary) ignore.
The surprise of the series, then, is how the embarrassment that should be Chris' ricochets. Yes, Marfa is a fishbowl, but Chris doesn't care. Chris' indifference to Dick's indifference (and to the town's involvement, and to the fact that everyone knows) translates into some funny reversals. Absent her willingness to self-police, it's the men who are mortified by her decision to go public with her desire. In the early stages, Sylvere demands that she inform Dick that he knew nothing about them — and that they're a work of art. They aren't real. This doesn't work, and a bewildered Dick admits he finds the whole thing humiliating; his cowboy mystique suffers under all that love.
To Chris, none of that matters. "Female monsters take things as personally as they really are. They study facts," Kraus writes. "Even if rejection makes them feel like the girl who's not invited to the party, they have to understand the reason why." The letters keep spreading. Dick, the resident artist, the man's man, the cowboy sculptor whose giant installations catapulted him into fame, has become — as a sad but fascinated Sylvere puts it — a muse.
It's hard to explain how funny this is. As Chris stubbornly publicizes something so private its publication should mortify, the series slowly rises to meet its source text — a book famous for theorizing the position of the female artist in a landscape that persistently mistakes her interventions as private and personal (or worse, confessional) rather than philosophical or universal or great. As the show points out, there are hundreds of times more nude female bodies represented in art history than there are female artists. Under those circumstances, well, why not strip?
The book asks that metaphorically. In the series, the question is also literal, and I admit I find the literal instance a little less compelling. Nudity's been done. Repeatedly engineering your own social humiliation, on the other hand? Elevating abjection into art? That's on a whole other level; it blows up the frame. It's a spectacle that refuses responsibility for the feelings it evokes. "Why is female vulnerability still only acceptable when it's neuroticized and personal; when it feeds back on itself?" Kraus writes in the book. "Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?"
Roberta Colindrez and India Menuez are great as Devon and Toby (an artistic townie and experimental art historian). They're the younger, less developed artists in the series, and their forays into artistic self-exposure are definitely more derivative than Chris' flailing sincerity.
But with all these artists wandering around, art never quite becomes the point. Rather than pronounce on questions of artistic merit — the series is amazingly uninvested in making you admire Chris' films — it wanders and stares and explores. And returns, with hilarious single-mindedness, to the erotic charge Chris has managed to single-handedly produce. When the camera focuses on the closeness of Dick's arm to Chris', you can practically feel the electric current between them. These examples of the "female gaze" are so stunningly effective that, when Dick denies any attraction, you simply don't believe him. The camera crackled way too much.
That may not be fair to Dick — a character who acquires more layers as the series progresses, as does Sylvere — but if film history, filled as it is with men who long and lust after women, has taught us anything, it's that obsession isn't fair or stable or even. It tends to be one-sided. And it tends to pull its object in.
The show about a woman's humiliating attraction to everything she resents develops, then, into a different set of questions: What does art owe to privacy? How can autobiography — specifically, a woman's use of the self, with all its mortifying urges — be elevated into art despite our ingrained belief that a woman's desire is intrinsically private and embarrassing, especially when isn't reciprocated? "Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement? Why do women always have to come off clean?" Kraus writes in one of her 250 letters to Dick. "What hooks me on our story is our different readings of it. You think it's personal and private; my neurosis. … I think our story is performative philosophy."
And it is. This isn't an easy or obvious book to adapt. I Love Dick inverts easy expectations of what abjection looks like and to whom it sticks. Let's face it, there's plenty of pathos on television these days — The Handmaid's Tale is full of it. But I Love Dick is that dystopia's perfect opposite: If the latter wonders what it's like when women are no longer allowed to want anything at all, the former wonders what it looks when women want to excess. Lust loves a mirror, and this series renders desire so stickily and so well that by the end, you might love Dick too.