“I Love Dick” is a spiky, ambitious, open-hearted, and occasionally exhausting exploration of many things. There’s a lot going on inside each episode, and if the dizzying array of ideas is almost too much to grapple with at times, its greatest heights are worth the sometimes jagged ride.
At the core of “I Love Dick” are lively thoughts, theories, and questions about the genesis of creativity and the nature of female desire, and it’s also intensely interested in how those things co-exist, feed each other, and come into conflict. The show also plays around with the limits and attractions of traditional gender roles, the challenges of being in a committed relationship, and the importance (or lack thereof) of modern art, as well as ideas about connection, oppression, and how identities and energies can be co-opted or harnessed. And this roster of concepts just scratches the surface of what the show delves into in its eight installments.
It’s also a pretty great showcase for Kevin Bacon’s abs.
And his acting abilities, it should be noted. Bacon is extremely good in “I Love Dick” as the title character, an artist-cowboy who cultivates an air of mystique in the art-centric town of Marfa, Texas. Chris (Kathryn Hahn), who accompanies her author husband there when he takes up a writing residency, is instantly undone by Dick’s presence, even though she understands, on some level, that he works hard to make his taciturn pose look effortless.
Behind Dick’s laconic facade, it emerges, is a lot of tequila and even more existential turmoil. But the more instinctual parts of Chris’ brain ignore every warning sign and red light; instead, she writes him letters and fantasizes about watching him tenderly shear a sheep. The latter moment is, by the way, suffused with electric desire; it’s also a little bit funny and beautifully sincere.
“I Love Dick” is exhilarating when it pulls off this kind of delicate, potent mixture, and throughout its first season, its directors provide a master class on how to explore the contours and quirks of a woman’s body and her desires without falling into the cliched and boring tropes that TV typically relies on. As is the case with “Transparent,” executive producer Jill Soloway’s other tender, complicated show about needy people, “I Love Dick” is genuinely interested in the female gaze and in human beings in general, in all their messy, weird, questing glory.
The sheep-shearing scene draws on one of the show’s running jokes, which revolves around the ways in which “I Love Dick” continually and intentionally objectifies the body of Bacon’s character. Given that this is an intensely intellectual work, various characters comment on this process of objectification, even as Chris, in her mind and letters, invents a fantasy Dick that bears only a passing resemblance to the actual man. Philosophical questions insistently come up anywhere and everywhere in this show: In the midst of sexually charged moments, during a live-streamed performance piece, during dance parties at roadhouse bars, and in Chris and her husband Sylvere’s rental house, the locus of their claustrophobic interdependence and unpredictable intimacy.
Whooo boy, this show can be a lot. It sometimes feels like an advanced seminar on semiotics is trying to break out of an experimental streaming half-hour, or perhaps it’s the other way around.
But what a heart “I Love Dick” has, and what a devotion to honesty. If there’s one truth that “I Love Dick” understands, it’s that attraction can be ruined when the object of that attraction has lost his or her air of mystery. Getting to know someone as an actual human being is how deeper bonds are established, of course, but the frisky possibilities of not being privy to all the mundane, prosaic details can be, as Chris is all too aware, kind of sexy.
“I Love Dick” ping-pongs between the faltering relationship between Chris and Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), between that couple and various Marfa residents, between theory and idea, between the body and mind, between art and drinking, between pure lust and fluctuating self-esteem. All the dizzying detours and heady concepts can lead to a sense of opaque confusion: Is the show about ideas, or is it about people who care about ideas?
At its best, “I Love Dick” makes both those realms come alive. But sometimes it’s less a blend of the intellectual and the sensuous than an uneasy or even awkward coalition. That said, it’s hard to fault a show for taking on too much, especially given that this one is so passionately, demonstrably interested in seeing where curiosity and desire can take an adventurous, self-doubting adult.
Given that the show is so interested in exploring boundaries, it’s not surprising that some of its conventional aspects hold it back at times. When “Dick” gets loose and weird and wanders out of the range of the sometimes suffocating neuroses of Chris and Sylvere, it’s often at its most interesting. It can be hard to care about whether the couple splits up, given how tenuous and sour their bond often seems. But wanting more from the rest of the Marfa ensemble is partly a matter of witnessing how good supporting actors Roberta Colindrez, Lily Mojekwu, and India Menuez are. Episodes in which they and other striving artists and art-lovers dominate the story are often the most lively, the most representative of the show’s generous impulses, and the most fun.
If you’re iffy about “I Love Dick” after watching the pilot, jump to episode five. It’s not normal for TV critics to endorse this approach, but we live in TV-saturated times, and in any event, “I Love Dick,” which is based on a cult novel by Chris Kraus, isn’t all that concerned with linearity.
In the fifth episode, a lineup of women narrate key moments from their romantic and sexual histories, and it’s likely to be one of the year’s best episodes of television. The women’s bodies aren’t exploited and their desires aren’t shorn of all their weird edges and strange threads; their stories are strange and relatable and full of specificity and discovery. It’s a sharp, empathic tour de force.
Without giving too much away, the season finale features scenes that give fierce and sometimes joyous punctuations to everything that has gone before. The final episode celebrates art and community and all the ways that people use them to connect and find themselves. And lose themselves, too.
Variety TV critic Sonia Saraiya reviewed the first three episodes of “I Love Dick” when it premiered at Sundance; that review is here.