“What if we all started writing you letters?”
So states Chris Kraus, played by the extraordinary Kathryn Hahn in “I Love Dick,” the new Amazon comedy from Sarah Gubbins and Jill Soloway about a woman who movies to Marfa, Texas, and falls head over high heels for a local artist named Dick (Kevin Bacon). Her infatuation is evident immediately and explored thoroughly in the eight-episode first season, as Chris, Dick, and her husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne) — yup, she’s married — enter into a sexually charged emotional gambit none of them fully understand.
Chris tries to capture her complex and expansive feelings by writing letters to Dick, first as an exercise, then as an epistle, and eventually as an art form unto itself. These letters made up the memoir written by Kraus, and they’re honored in all their glory throughout the season; read aloud, illustrated onscreen, scattered around town, but most of all, they’re made visually and narratively stimulating in exquisite experimental form by Soloway (who directs two of the episodes) and Gubbins (who ran the show).
“I Love Dick” is a reversal of traditional gender dynamics, in which the woman is the object of lustful desire and the man is a fevered, impassioned pursuer. Moreover, the series deconstructs how and why society accepts such behavior from men, but has typically refused to acknowledge similar desires from the opposite sex. Chris wants Dick. Dick — and Sylvere — aren’t entirely comfortable with this. But that’s too damn bad.
Rather than paint a fervent woman has an obsessed psychopath (a la “Fatal Attraction”), “I Love Dick” fully embraces its lead’s sexual desires without turning her into a woman to be feared. Chris is deeply empathetic, courageous, and well-defined. Hahn, herself, does an incredible job of embracing Chris’ inherent confusion: She’s experiencing an awakening of sorts, and that’s not always a process that makes sense. But Hahn finds humanity and truth in the brief make-or-break moments in Chris’ journey. Even when she’s daydreaming about Dick carrying a baby lamp over his bare shoulders, we see an awareness within her. She’s sorting through this from second-to-second, just trying to get a grip on an unplanned passion that’s bigger than her.
It helps, too, that Chris is surrounded by an open-minded community; one that encourages her exploration and makes a fitting setting for the avant-garde elements of the series. The reason Chris and Sylvere moved to Marfa was so Sylvere could take part in Dick’s workshop. Chris was supposed to go to Venice, supporting a film she made, but gets sidetracked and then stuck in the unique little Texan town. Marfa’s residents are a blend of blue collar laborers and high-minded artists, and the two cross paths just enough to feel like a unified community — one Gubbins and Soloway hope to build through the series.
While not exactly an easily accessible gateway for Average Joe Amazon Subscriber to the ambitious ideas and ideals of modern progressives, “I Love Dick’s” placement — both in small town Texas and via the streaming giant — make it an intriguing outreach experiment. Can the allure of sex, nudity, comedy, and Kevin Bacon pull in an audience typically unwilling to engage with the radical leanings of these nondiscriminatory citizens? We may never know, given Amazon’s closed-door policy on ratings, but it’s an admirable effort nonetheless.
It’s also an intriguing challenge. Many should be hooked by the series’ intermittent hilarity, its consistent internal pull, as well as the performances. This is Bacon’s most interesting turn since “The Woodsman,” and Roberta Colindrez, as Chris’ neighbor, Devon, is an exciting new discovery.
But its construction isn’t designed for addiction so much as commitment. That the thesis statement above —”What if we all started writing you letters?” — isn’t said until the fifth episode speaks to the fascination and frustration of watching the “I Love Dick.” It introduces a tremendous, standalone half-hour, but one wonders if placing it earlier in the season would’ve convinced more on-the-fence viewers.
No matter. What’s here is rich and compelling, sure to stir discussion, and a worthy extension of the groundbreaking book that inspired it. If more people wrote letters like Chris, we’d all be better informed — and probably have a lot more sex.