In a 2015 New Yorker essay on American writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus, Leslie Jamison pinpoints a certain cachet that I Love Dick, Kraus’s cult hybrid of memoir and fiction, has held since its publication in 1997: “It was a book that carried the sense of being in the know.” Reading I Love Dick provides the reader with access to an imagined club of sorts, one made up entirely of literarily inclined cool girls who read it on subways and park benches, sharing knowing smiles with those in on the secret, and ignoring the expressions of men who smirk at the bawdy title. Jamison aptly characterizes these readers as “smart women who liked to talk about their feelings.”
Considering I Love Dick’s experimental format and niche readership, it doesn’t exactly scream “TV adaptation.” Nor, for that matter, does its plot. The series ditches boy-meets-girl niceties for a thornier sequence of events. It presents a semi-fictionalized version of Kraus—thus setting up the book’s hazy label of autofiction—who’s also a filmmaker. Chris is married to a man with the same name and profession (a Holocaust scholar) as Kraus’s real-life husband. Then there’s Dick, a surname-less theorist and cultural critic with whom Chris begins an obsessive, one-sided correspondence. This, too, has roots in real life, as Dick is based on sociologist Dick Hebdige. From there, as told in an epistolary format, girl pursues boy, girl debases herself in pursuit of boy, girl examines the implications of her obsession, girl engages with a litany of feminist theory and art criticism. In other words, not a formula for winning television—that is, unless you put Kraus’s work in the hands of Jill Soloway.
Soloway and co-creator Sarah Gubbins expand the scope of Kraus’s book and give it a concrete sense of place. While the novel oscillates between New York and California, Kraus’s heady trains of thought feel unmoored from any particular space. The creators, though, set the series in Marfa, Texas, whose near-mythological status as an artist hub owes mostly to minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, who moved to the tiny town in the ’70s and later established the Judd Foundation there. As television settings go, Marfa is terrific fodder. For one, the vast landscapes and dusty, sunburnt texture are a cinematographer’s dream come true. The town also creates a space for academics and cowboys to mingle and chafe; it’s altogether tight-knit and sprawling, coupling the insular artists’ community with the wide-open spaces of West Texas.
Chris (Kathryn Hahn), the fish-out-of-water New Yorker, is skeptical of Marfa. In the pilot, she’s there to drop off her husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), a fellow at Marfa Institute, before jetting off to show her work at the Venice Biennale. When her trip abroad is stymied, it seems as though Chris will head back to Brooklyn. Her plans change, however, when she meets Dick (Kevin Bacon), the head of the institute and soon-to-be subject of Chris’s obsession.
Chris is the yin to Dick’s yang. She’s all harried frenetic energy while he’s a modern cowboy, as steely and masculine as the sculptures for which he’s famous. The physicality that Hahn and Bacon bring to their respective roles further distinguishes the characters; Chris’s awkward, impatient movements are a pointed contrast to Dick’s languorous, rangy swagger. When they first meet, Chris nervously stammers and mumbles, asking questions to fill the silences, and Dick’s answers are confident and terse.
Dick is often downright infuriating, dropping nuggets of condescension like, “Most films made by women aren’t that good.” When, in the second episode, Chris seeks out feedback about her film, Dick flatly tells her, “It’s not my thing.” But in spite of—or perhaps because of—Dick’s callousness, Chris finds him irresistible. She simultaneously wants to sleep with him and be validated by him. It’s these dual impulses that incite her letter-writing, as well as a series of psychosexual fantasies between Chris and Sylvere.
Though Kraus’s book is solely concerned with the lives of Chris, Dick, and Sylvere, the show’s change in setting comes with a freshly scripted gaggle of characters with their own storylines. By introducing individuals like Devon (Roberta Colindrez), a lesbian playwright and Marfa native, Toby (India Menuez), the fellow completing her research on hardcore pornography, and Paula (Lily Mojekwu), the co-head of the institute whose ideas are stifled by Dick, the show’s Marfa universe contains a more expansive view of femaleness—and the different types of female desire and ambition—than a single female character might offer. Like the trio at the core of I Love Dick, these characters have their own web of complex entanglements, allowing the show to explore multiple valences of art, ambition, and obsession.
Though Soloway and company open up the book’s world with a vast new setting and an expanded group of characters, the show’s universe can feel insular. Just as the book it’s based on is intended for a specific type of female reader, the series requires you to be hip to certain tenets of modern art and filmmaking, subjects that are usually broached in verbose grad-school speak. “I wouldn’t describe my work as being feminist,” Toby says in episode two. “I would describe it as formalist, foremost.” Given the layers of metafiction and allusion that inhabit I Love Dick, the show’s hyper-intellectualism can be potentially alienating. In the second episode, Chris delivers a harried monologue on experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. In a flashback later in the season, a younger Chris finds a copy of My Mother: Demonology in Sylvere’s apartment. The signed book is a visual gag for those familiar with its author: “To Sylvere—the best fuck in the world. Love, Kathy Acker.”
Though permeated with the art-history and academic jargon, the series proves to be as interested in art and art theory as it is feelings. In this way, the creators understand Jamison’s distillation of I Love Dick readers: “Smart women who like to talk about their feelings.” As much as it may cater to the urbane, feminist literati, this adaptation ultimately succeeds because it recognizes that intellectualism and visceral emotion intersect in fascinating ways. It’s what allows Chris to plaster the words “THIS IS ABOUT OBSESSION” on the streets of Marfa. It’s the freedom of being lustful, abject, and impactful all at once. It’s about letting a woman be her own unabashed creator.