Sometimes the heart wants what it wants – even when the brain knows the heart is a lust-drunk idiot. Jil Soloway’s brilliant new Amazon series I Love Dick is a darkly comic parable about the crossroads of art and sex, based on Chris Krauss’ beloved 1997 cerebral cult novel. Kathryn Hahn is Chris, a struggling indie filmmaker who finds herself at an artists’ retreat in Marfa, Texas, where she falls under the spell of local artist Dick, played by Kevin Bacon. Chris was just planning on passing through town to drop off her academic husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), who is taking Dick’s writing class this summer, and then move on to the Venice Film Festival. But when she gets the bad news her movie got axed, she sticks around town and develops a bizarre lust triangle with the shallowest, emptiest, most pompous male in town. Which, as so often, is where Kevin Bacon comes in.
Dick is a cynical cowboy-artist who got famous as a sculptor, but hasn’t made any of his actual art in a while. Instead, he presides over the fictional Marfa Institute with a philosopher-king mystique. “I haven’t read a book in 10 years,” he announces. “I’m post-idea.” He’s also laconic, always preening, contemptuous of female artists and women in general – Chris can see right away this guy is full of shit. So why does she obsess over him? Why does watching him handle sheep make her weak in the knees? And why does she keep writing him passionate erotic letters where she declares, “I want to have the kind of sex that makes breathing feel like fucking?”
Soloway, still coasting from the success of Transparent, takes liberties with the book to explore her own ideas, in collaboration with playwright Sarah Gubbins. In the original novel, “Dick” is the British critical theorist Dick Hebdidge, whose 1981 tome Subculture: The Meaning of Style had a place on every Eighties art-twit English major’s shelf (usually nestled between Pleasure and Danger and This Sex Which Is Not One). Bacon turns this Dick into a more dissolute lout, hiding his self-doubt and artistic frustration behind his hard-drinking swagger – having given up on himself as an artist, he’s strictly in it for the power trip, with student booty as a sideline. Bacon makes this guy a little Nick Nolte from New York Stories, a little David Duchovny from Californication – but it’s also easy to imagine he’s the kid from Footloose a few decades down the road, after he graduating to scam his way through small-town art colonies the way he once charmed small-town preachers’ daughters on to the dance floor.
All three of the central characters are selfish and grasping, with barely any likable moments. Yet as Soloway showed on Transparent, her specialty is making you relate to totally insufferable creeps – and even root for them. (Some of us are still getting over the emotionally pole-axing sight of Transparent‘s Judith Light, as the deeply unlikable Shelly Pfefferman, doing her heart-tugging cruise ship rendition of Alanis Morrissette’s “Hand in My Pocket.”) At the heart of I Love Dick, it’s about Chris trying to solve the mystery of her own creative conflicts and how they play into her own thwarted sexual cravings. That means figuring out why she wants Bacon – or why any woman is attracted to any man. Chris knows there’s no real Dick substance behind his well-burnished allure. So why does the female gaze keep getting so hung up on the obscure male object of desire?
It’s a mystery that hovers over many small Southern art towns, and like most such towns, this one is full of hustlers – and liars, delusional con artists, self-indulgent dreamers and stoner crackpots. If you’ve ever lived in one of these towns, you know these people well. And I Love Dick gets them right, from the vanity that makes them exhausting to the impulsive energy that makes them attractive. As usual, the women in this town are more intriguing; see the standout fifth episode (“A Short History of Weird Girls”) where a roll call of female characters tell their own sexual stories. It’s is a fascinatingly different kind of bad romance: a tour of the interzone where the creative mind and the libido turn into enemies.