It’s true that Jill Soloway has done a very strange and bold thing, in attempting to adapt one of the least adaptable books of all time, Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick. Part memoir, part fiction, part feminist theory—but all love (after all, every letter is a love letter)—I began reading the book after learning that Soloway was turning it into a TV show for Amazon, and wondered how in the world she’d pull it off.
Suffice it to say, it’s been pulled—at least it has been in the pilot, which Amazon premiered earlier this week. There are many reasons for the episode’s success, including Sarah Gubbin’s script (which pulls off that sad/sexy/absurd blend we Transparent fans have come to adore), beautiful, risky directorial moves from Soloway, and pitch perfect performances from Kevin Bacon (Dick), Griffin Dunne (Sylvere) and the incomparable Kathryn Hahn (Chris). In the pilot, New Yorkers Chris and Sylvere find themselves in the strange new land of Marfa, Texas, where Chris struggles to adjust to her role as the wife of Sylvere (or “Dick’s new fellow’s wife,”) and also receives devastating news about her latest film.
I Love Dick, the book, is technically about a woman obsessed with a man who has little to no use for her, except that Chris Kraus takes her “position” and builds theory out of it, or rather, teases out the theory already there. She loves Dick, she uses Dick, she veils and unveils herself through Dick. It’s not about Dick, we discover very early on (nor is it about her husband, Sylvere); it’s about a woman and an artist on a journey, and how the specifics of her white, Jewish, artist woman-ness inform her art, her sex and her interpretation of the art and sex of others.
It’s about plenty of other things as well, and it’s impressive that so much of this is captured in the pilot. In seemingly small and separate moments, two women characters define the series (or the potential series) perfectly, and in doing so, work to nullify or neuter the male gaze.
The first moment occurs near the end of the pilot. Dick shocks and offends Chris at dinner when he defends the musicians who demanded money for the use of their song in her film, and suggests that it was rightfully pulled from the Venice Film Festival. Then, with a smirk, he asks her what the film is about.
After Chris responds to Dick, something wonderful and horrifying happens. Dick scoffs and says her movie (which she went on to say is also about society’s crushing expectations on women) sounds horrible. Rather than engaging with Chris about the film further, he does the unthinkable (and yet, wholly common thing) and leans over—as if in confidence—to her husband, asking, “Is she any good?” That’s the horrifying part—watching Sylvere actually attempt to respectfully (as both an intellectual and a husband) answer the question and seeing Dick’s absolute trust in his [male] perspective. But as the lens lingers on the two talking male heads, we get something beautiful: Soloway demands that we see the absurdity in the male gaze upon the female filmmaker. The confidence with which Dick speaks is infuriating, but the shots of Dick and Sylvere, as seen from the perspective of Chris, make it clear that the male gaze is useless in this narrative. This isn’t about a couple. It’s about a woman, first and foremost. (Yes, that’s right men, take a hike!)
Of course, all of this is somewhat complicated by the fact that the whole encounter inspires the erotic and intimate work of fiction Chris writes that night, as a letter to Dick, which ultimately inspires the end of her sex drought with Sylvere. That same infuriating confidence and bout of mansplaining was also… a turn on? (But a turning on of what—sexual or artistic passion? Or… something else entirely?) Chris is going to be a complicated heroine, to say the least.
The second woman who defines the show is Devon (played by Roberta Colindrez), and I was thrilled to see the development of her character. She seemed to be playing a minor role at the beginning of the pilot, but by the end she delivers news that could put a Synechdoche, NY—like spin on I Love Dick. She tells her two friends that they’ll need to clear their weekend schedules, because she’s come up with a new idea for a play.
Perhaps more readily than Chris, Devon can admit that her story is about a woman. It only appears to be about a couple, and even though she is clearly inspired by her new neighbors Sylvere and Chris, it’s Chris who she’s met (and given her cowboy boots to) and it’s Chris whose narrative and gaze will take center stage.
What’s great about this move is that Devon and her friends, Suki (Phoebe Robinson) and Geoff (Adhir Kalyan), are all people of color—their play will work to challenge Chris’ white, hetero (Devon is also, presumably, queer) perspective. If the pilot moves to series, it will be fascinating to watch Devon and company tell one story, as Chris tells another. Of all the things I Love Dick could do, this merging and clashing of stories that are unapologetically about women (and women discovering women) holds the most promise for the making of a complex and diverse story.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.