‘I Love Dick’ and the Narrative Power of a Neurotic Woman

As Chris Kraus, Kathryn Hahn channels the excess energy of every lame wifey character on TV who doesn’t have enough to do.

We hear the heroine of I Love Dick before we see her, shouting across a tiny Manhattan apartment as she and her husband pack for a trip. Played with manic exuberance by Kathryn Hahn, Chris Kraus — also the name of the author who wrote the book upon which the new Amazon series is based — is the antidote to the anti-hero: Not a woman who’s just as morosely “badass” as Don Draper or Tony Soprano, but a woman on the edge of 40 who just. Doesn’t. Give. A. Fuck.

I Love Dick is an unlikely TV adaptation — it’s hard to imagine its existence were it not for the runaway success of Transparent, which I Love Dick director Jill Soloway created in 2014. The pilot episode of I Love Dick, now streaming on Amazon, takes as its source material a feminist cult classic, a 1997 autobiographic novel about a woman married to an older intellectual who meets and falls in love with a cultural critic named Dick.

In the book, Chris — an independent filmmaker — experiences a creative and sexual awakening after she and her husband, Sylvere, have dinner with Dick near his home in Pasadena, California. The series moves the action to an artist’s colony in Marfa, Texas, where Sylvere has been offered a prestigious fellowship to finish a book about the Holocaust. (“There’s something new afoot,” he insists.) From there, Chris plans to go onto Venice, where one of her films has been invited to screen.

“Is it weird that this is not at all what I expected?” Chris muses as she and Sylvere (Griffin Dunne) pull onto Marfa’s main drag. The soundtrack flips to a slow, sexy Spanish folk song; a man on a horse, his face obscured by a cowboy hat, ambles down the street in the opposite direction, then pulls over and slides off the horse in one graceful swoop. Later, at a reception for the artist’s center where Sylvere will be studying, Chris meets the man in the cowboy hat — who turns out to be none other than Dick (Kevin Bacon), a scruffy “man’s man” who lives alone on a secluded ranch and rolls his own cigarettes.

As Chris, Hahn tears through the pilot like a tornado. Her lively performance fuels I Love Dick’s pilot episode, directed by Soloway and written by the playwright Sarah Gubbins. Impulsive, loud, sexy but too abrasive to be adorable, Chris would get along swimmingly with Transparent’s brood of introspective, lefty, Jewish intellectuals. For a half-hour comedy, I Love Dick is fairly avant-garde, not just in its characters and setting but in its form, which alludes to its literary inspiration: Fragments of Chris’s letters appear onscreen in white block letters set against a lipstick-red backdrop, read aloud by Hahn in a flat, assertive voice that’s gruff with desire.

More so than Transparent, I Love Dick sounds too wankingly intellectual on paper to work onscreen. Soloway’s new show should be alienating or smugly academic — seriously, a TV show about a 40-year-old independent filmmaker who falls in love with a cultural critic at an artist’s colony? — and yet it manages to be both cerebral and broadly appealing.

The pilot exploits its setting’s comedic potential. Soloway and Gubbins deflate their brainy characters’ egos like cackling children popping balloons at a birthday party. They find humor in gloriously specific moments: Chris’s mock laughter when Sylvere makes a bad joke; snatches of party chatter (“I heard the Q&A was quite lively”); a young woman’s incredulous reaction to Sylvere’s book: “There’s something afoot with the Holocaust?”

I Love Dick is an unabashed ode to the female gaze, dedicated to Chris’s pleasure and perspective. When Dick leans in close to Sylvere at dinner to ask if Chris’s movie is any good, we see the two huddled together from Chris’s point of view, like they’re conspiring against her. In the book, Dick protests that he did nothing to warrant Chris’s obsessive behavior, her letters and phone calls spanning a period of years. But the screen version takes Chris’s story as gospel, giving her total power over the narrative. When they meet at the party, Chris and Dick speak in knowing double entendres (“You want to know how big my ranch is?”); he stiffens when she mentions her husband for the first time, then lights a cigarette. You couldn’t call her crazy for reading into those signs.

Throughout the pilot, Soloway freezes the frame on Hahn in a succession of snapshots, as if trying desperately to capture and bottle the power of her emotional states: anger, frustration, confusion, passion. Sylvere promises Chris he’ll stay close to her at the party, taking her hand, but as soon as they arrive he lets go (appropriately, to greet Dick); the camera closes in on their joined hands separating — like Carrie’s artist boyfriend Aleksandr Petrovsky leaving her behind at his gallery in the Sex and the City finale.

Like Carrie Bradshaw, Chris is brash and loud and not a little obnoxious. On the page, Chris funnels her newly roused desire into letters, dozens and then hundreds of them, all addressed to Dick; onscreen, Hahn translates that effort into a neurotically and sexually charged performance — as if channeling the excess energy of every lame wifey character on TV who doesn’t have enough to do.

There’s an anarchic power to I Love Dick; the show feels like a challenge posed to women to be bigger, hungrier, louder. “Don’t let me eat anymore,” Chris instructs Sylvere, passing him a bag of Twinkies in the car. A second later, she snatches them back.