Here’s an actually modern love story: Girl meets Boy. Girl has sex with her husband for the first time in years while fantasizing about Boy watching them and ordering her when to come. Girl stalks Boy. Girl lets her manic horniness for Boy, whose last name she might or might not know, demolish her moribund marriage and comatose career. Girl is mostly fine with that, because nothing matters more than her frenzied need to “obliterate the walls of [her] desire” — and because Girl’s awakened and ravenous libido fuels the most creative explosion of her life, whether or not its yield finds recognition as “art.”
Excuse me while I catch my breath, but I have to get this out as quickly as possible: Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins’s I Love Dick, streaming on Amazon as of today (May 12), is flat-out brilliant. Adapted from Chris Kraus’s confessional epistolary novel of the same name, the eight-episode comedy — though not without a few glaring faults — combines Soloway’s oeuvre-spanning preoccupation with women’s sexually frustrated midlife crises with Girls’ satire of feminist self-pity and fascination with the self-inflicted sexual humiliations of verbose, neurotic bobos. The result is a series that’s honest and hilarious, brainy and erotic, charming and intoxicating. At its best, it’s like discovering a whole new way to get high.
Like a new stimulant on the market, it’s also not for everyone. Kathryn Hahn’s tour-de-force performance as Chris, the floundering filmmaker happily drowning in her lustful flood, shouldn’t be missed. (Kevin Bacon, who plays the Dick that Chris craves, is enjoyably cocksure, but the slender, gray-bearded elf-man isn’t the most intuitive physical choice for the nouveau-cowboy role.) Set in the “dumpy yet hip” art/ranch town of Marfa, Texas, I Love Dick is composed of elements that happen to light up a constellation of my pleasure centers: Stories about unruly female desire, in this case a woman so overcome by her lasciviousness that she wants “to trash [her]self” and “become a female monster” by indulging in her wants. Meditations on the politics of women’s art and filmmaking, including the send-ups of gender- and body-obsessed art films that begin each episode, helmed by accomplished female directors like Soloway, Andrea Arnold, and Kimberly Peirce. Explorations of female contradiction, as when feminist artist Chris finds freedom in her fantasies of sexual degradation. Formal experiments, which Soloway and Gubbins spearhead here by printing the epistolary texts of Chris’s forceful yet fanciful proposals (“I want to have the kind of sex that makes breathing feel like fucking”) in bold red and white cards, like Mrs. Claus’s Penthouse letter. Parodies of academia with phrases like “post-modern bricolage.” Fresh lampoons of the art world and its institutional biases: “There are 500 times as many nudes in art history textbooks … as there are female artists.”
At this point, I should mention that Chris’s saggy-jowled mentor-husband, Sylvere, is played by Griffin Dunne, but it’s a testament to how little our heroine/lust addict regards the staid Holocaust scholar that he hasn’t merited a mention yet. I Love Dick makes Chris and Sylvere’s marriage feel deeply lived-in, and so we do grow to care about the older man’s hurt as his significantly younger wife indulges in Dickmania. But, thankfully, the series early on rejects the milquetoast option of making the sanctity of their marriage the show’s stakes. What it’s interested in — as are we — is how far Chris will follow her desire, and where it will take her.
It’s worth noting that we would — and probably should — have far less patience for a male protagonist in the same situation, who blatantly fetishizes a famous artist (for his perceived masculinity, not his celebrity) and disrupts the education of his students. Chris, a flibbertigibbet, can’t keep from stroking Dick’s hair in his classroom/gallery while begging for permission to audit his class. Later, as her husband gives a speech about his work a few feet away, she rubs her upper arm against an annoyed Dick’s chest. Among the 200 or so questions I Love Dick throws at its audience is to what extent Chris’s behavior is acceptable — or nonthreatening or even admirable — because she’s a woman.
It sounds like praise to say that I Love Dick’s first season is too short, but it’s not entirely. The narrative arcs on Soloway’s Transparent are always well thought-out, but here, the story is desolately incomplete, making the season finale feel less like an organic ending than a desperate appeal to Amazon for a renewal. And for all the time we spend with the characters outside of the Chris-Dick-Sylvere love triangle, their stories — especially of genderqueer writer Devon (Roberta Colindrez) and female porn scholar Toby (India Menuez) — are underdeveloped. Devon, Toby, and a few of their art friends eventually get ahold of Chris’s Dick letters and decide to mount a play using the filmmaker’s words as found text. Once Chris figures out what she really wants, I wouldn’t mind staying a little longer in this version of Marfa, with its haphazardly strewn dirt, metal, wood, rock, and “desert crunch.” The dusty, low-slung houses and the faraway mountains make the town look simultaneously barren and inspirational. Until then, it’s exhilarating to watch Chris transform her world from one to the other.