The worst date I’ve ever been on didn’t earn the title because, when it became clear that the whole thing was a quiet disaster, she did a whole Duolingo lesson at the table. It was the worst date I’ve ever been on because I really thought we had clicked. And we had, sorta, talking at length for at least a month. But all that talk was through text, and text lets you curate yourself in ways face-to-face conversations don’t. For instance, I’d never frantically discuss The Beatles–a band neither of us cared about–if I was texting, but once she had finished with Duolingo, that’s what I found myself doing.
I can’t (and shouldn’t!) say what her takeaway was, but I know that the messiness shocked me. I had let myself believe that the written word’s measured clarity was real life, and when I remembered that it wasn’t, I recoiled.
Sarah Gubbin and Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick follows Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) as she finds a sexual and artistic awakening with swaggering cowboy-artist Dick (Kevin Bacon) as her reluctant muse. Based on Kraus’ novel of the same name, it expands the focus from one woman to a community of women. It’s only eight episodes, but it’s sprawling, complicated, vibrant and uncomfortable. Above all, though, I think the reason I enjoyed it so much is its messiness. It’s art about art, but it’s art about life, and all the complications that promises.
The show is messy, and the show never looks away.
“It’s like taco porn.”
Chris has, due to marital troubles and the rich ambiguity of language, ordered 16 tacos. A group of artist-acquaintances watch her as she tears into them.
“It’s animalistic…it’s like a raccoon digging through the garbage.”
They’re fixated, nearly horrified. Among the show’s many explorations of female desire, this is pretty tame, but even then it’s a spectacle. Chris, here, is a woman uncomposed, and they’re snickering at her.
But it’s in the same episode that those onlookers meet to practice Devon’s (Roberta Colindrez) play. It’s experimental theater, and it’s based on Chris’s filched love letters. And those fickle fucking reindeer assholes gawking at Chris by the taco truck? They’re loving it.
“I was born into a world that presumes there’s something grotesque, unspeakable about female desire,” Devon intones to a rapt audience, reading Chris’ words and staring at their out-of-reach crush Toby (India Menuez). “But now all I want to be is undignified. To trash myself. I want to be a female monster.”
The layers are twisting together. There’s Chris as an artistic wreck and Chris as just a wreck, and Chris as what she means to Devon and Chris as what she means to Chris. For the minor characters who mocked Chris eating tacos but nod sagely along to her letters, these distinctions are clear and without conflict: rage-eating is gross, but writing from a gnawing hunger is inspired.
But Devon–one of the show’s departures from the novel and perhaps its biggest success–seems to know better. They met Chris when she was anxiously wake-and-baking. They heard Chris’ dejected monologue on artistic frustration. They knew the person before the art, and they see the distinction, but they see the connection too. Maybe that’s why they recite the letters while staring at the woman they want so badly: they see how it could maybe, maybe bring them closer.
So, Dick’s an ass. He’s dismissive towards women artists in general, dismissive towards Chris in particular, and he meets her advances with both condescension and cruelty. Chris wants him, obviously, but there’s little to suggest that she really likes him.
But she doesn’t need to like him. To Chris, Dick is only incidentally a person. He’s more like an abstraction of the alpha male artist. He’s more like art himself.
“A straight line is perfection,” he says, defending his sculpture that’s just a brick on a pedestal. And Dick himself as a straight line, clearly defined and unwavering and kinda boring. He’s perfect for Chris to define herself against. The story sets him up as her foil, yeah, but Chris herself does the same thing.
The show is aware of the ethical concerns of this. After all, Chris (and her husband!) are reducing a human being to an idea without his cooperation. But the show is also aware that this creatively-fruitful objectification has been happening to women for centuries. It points to the staggering disparity between paintings of women and paintings by women in art galleries. It asks who gets to be beautiful, and who gets to own beauty.
As Chris’ obsession wackily turns into something like intimacy, Chris ends up borrowing a pair of Dick’s jeans.
“These fit almost…too well,” she says.
I Love Dick is fascinated with the space between art and artist, and it’s especially fascinated with how that space brings people together and tears people apart. Devon and Toby are an interesting pair, clashing over Toby’s performance piece when the real argument is about whose bed Toby shared. Chris’ obsession with Dick makes him into a passive–if beguiling–idea she can cast herself against, and yet there is a connection, fleeting and shallow as it is.
In their Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, co-creator Jill Soloway described the show as “a community of artists all trying to make art about others and themselves, while also trying to attain intimacy.” I had been waffling on the series–Soloway’s reputation as a surface-level activist, my own worries about being a voyeur in a show that’s clearly not made for me, uncertainty whether I still had Amazon Prime–but it was that sentence that sold me.
I’ve had a lot of weird, unhelpful art crushes over the years. I’d conflate loving someone’s work with loving someone, tracing a straight line from “audience” to “friend” when the path is so much twistier–if there’s a path at all. Obsession can be, and maybe has to be, unilateral, and my obsessions had little to do with the people I was obsessed with.
And so these art crushes are often really lonely. And I Love Dick, for its packed cast and high energy, is a very lonely show. But it doesn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Chris’ obsession with Dick brings her closer to herself than it does to him, and that self-reflection is a great thing. Maybe art is a shitty way to communicate with the artist, but it’s a great way to communicate with yourself. There’s something triumphant in the show’s loneliness, because the loneliness is so insightful. And it’s triumphant, too, because love is too complicated to be solved by loving a sculpture. Love is weird and uncomfortable. Love is messy.
And messy is wonderful.
("I Love Dick." Courtesy of Amazon Studios )