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There might be a better version of the new Amazon series I Love Dick buried in itself, one that will unfold as the series rolls on, but the one that emerges after the first three episodes (screened Monday at Sundance) is a murky, pretentious mess that can’t leave the titular character out of it — because the whole series is based on a thinly veiled mesh of fiction and memoir of the same name and Dick is very much at the center.
Which is kind of a shame, since there’s a lesbian side story in the series that is, even without much of it revealed through three episodes, already infinitely more interesting than Dick (Kevin Bacon) or Chris (Kathryn Hahn), who writes the book about Dick — or Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), Chris’ husband and an arriving fellow at Dick’s famous Marfa artist and writers’ workshop/retreat.
(And yes, once the series gets past the whole emphasis on “dick” as a thing, the better. Thankfully there are only a few jokes about it, but the book and the title have no problem cashing in on that little wink.)
Created by playwright Sarah Gubbins (Ten Aker Wood) and Jill Soloway (Transparent) — Gubbins writes and Soloway directs — the show takes Chris Kraus’ much-debated 1997 book (which has been described as “a cult feminist classic”) and brings it to life, though results there are varied. The confessional book created controversy because it was quite open about Kraus and her husband Sylvere Lotringer’s marriage and how it spiraled around the unnamed Dick, who rather quickly and easily was identified as Dick Hebdige, the British writer (Subculture: The Meaning of Style), theorist and professor, who was none too pleased about it.
In the Amazon series, Dick gets a last name, Jarrett, and Soloway and Gubbins move the location to Marfa, where Dick is a famous artist who has built up his own cult of personality (or others have around him) despite not having created any of his sculptural work in almost a decade. Sylvere is there to take Dick’s writing class, though Dick’s class — despite its lengthy waiting list — doesn’t seem heavy on rigor. “I don’t have a syllabus,” Dick says at dinner one night with Chris and Sylvere. “I haven’t read a book in 10 years. I’m post-idea.”
It’s funny because it’s pretentious, with Dunne’s laid-back Sylvere giving a bemused, wine-buzzed “What the f— is post-idea?” kiss-off to it, but there are enough moments like that and others that focus on the fictional Marfa Institute and the artists and creatives around town who say pretentious things that you begin to wonder whether it’s an easy joke used too often or if we’re supposed to take these utterances as deep and not laughable.
Conflating the problem is Soloway’s direction, which Amazon describes as “told in Rashomon-style” but comes across as random collections of flatly told memories (sometimes directly at the camera). Those flashbacks at times involve Dick centrally and others not at all, tapping instead into backstories of side characters we’ve barely met, which detracts from the underdeveloped story of why Chris’ anger and annoyance with Dick dismissing her independent art film suddenly turns into sexual stalking, via letters.
Yes, if you’ve read the book it probably makes more sense, but TV series can’t rely — at all — on people knowing the source material because they so often don’t. The show must stand on its own. And in this case, despite Hahn’s brilliance (she really does deserve a breakout series), Bacon’s cowboy magnetism and Dunne’s subtle touches of humor and annoyance, there’s no clear evidence in the first three episodes that we should like any of them or care about their stories enough to keep watching.
That’s not good. Forget loving Dick, how about liking him? Or Chris?
We’re to assume that Dick’s blunt, macho cowboy-artist thing and his unwillingness to apologize for it makes him a magnet to everyone, female or male. We are to assume that New York-frazzled Chris can’t either resist the bad boy nature of this rare dude or that she simply wants to hate-f— him for dismissing her as an artist.
And the troubled marriage of Chris and Sylvere only gets mildly interesting when their sex life improves because he gets off on her reading her sexually charged letters to Dick while they’re in bed. Mostly they both seem like annoying, self-centered New Yorkers lost in Marfa.
Soloway has shown that she can make even the most self-obsessed characters likable or at least interesting on Transparent, but she and Gubbins fail, at least early on, in recreating the same on I Love Dick.
Again, a lot of the problems are magnified by the stylistic choices Soloway is making as the director, clouding whether we’re supposed to think the stories of the characters here are endearing or ridiculous, to be laughed along with or mocked from a distance — and why anyone should invest in finding out by watching more episodes.
But one thing that does emerge when the main tenets of the series are misfiring is that a show willing to invest more time in the side characters might be a show that goes somewhere. Specifically, the lesbian character of Devon (Roberta Colindrez) and her relationship with Toby (India Menuez) — who also is obsessed with Dick but in far different ways than Chris — has far more intriguing possibilities.
You can’t take your eyes off Colindrez, whose face projects intent without words and whose whole swagger tugs at the camera; she steals every moment of every scene she’s in, with Menuez’s more quirky/troubled character a close second. Because the nexus between Dick, Chris and Sylvere is, through three episodes, boring and not entirely believable or a story that seems worth the ride, perhaps more of Devon and Toby would be a good idea. Or a show about them, sans both Dick and dick.
None of this may ultimately matter since Amazon doesn’t survive on ratings but on subscriptions and it seems entirely committed to let lots of creative people take big swings. The message being sent so far is that if they miss, it happens — it’s the swing that matters. (Which is laudable, especially when it’s not your money.)
But the bigger issue for viewers in the Platinum Age of Television is always time. There are so many choices out there and not enough hours on the clock. Unless I Love Dick gets better in a hurry, there are better alternatives to love.
Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Kevin Bacon, Griffin Dunne, Roberta Colindrez, India Menuez
Created by: Sarah Gubbins, Jill Soloway
Based on the book by: Chris Krause
Premieres: May 12 (Amazon)
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