The idea of a comedy-drama about sexual obsession from the creator of “Transparent,” Jill Soloway, is enticing, and even more so when the star of that show is the controlled frenzy known as Kathryn Hahn, the winning actress who plays Rabbi Raquel on “Transparent.”
The reality, called “I Love Dick,” whose first season drops Friday on Amazon, is a whole lot less appealing, alas. At points, it’s as thin as its titular joke, a pun that the script leans on like a fifth-grader with a new command of naughty words.
Based on the 1997 cult memoir-novel (a.k.a. auto-fiction) by Chris Kraus, “I Love Dick” has been adapted into a tonally baffling story that seems to both ridicule academic pretentiousness and succumb to it. It’s filled with big ideas about sexuality, marriage, creativity, and gender, but, unlike the similarly idea-driven “Transparent,” it doesn’t have the rich character ensemble needed to bring them to life; the ideas bounce all over the place like a bunch of random reaction balls.
Hahn plays Chris Kraus, a filmmaker having career doubts, who travels to Marfa, Texas, with her husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), for a fellowship at an artists’ retreat. The retreat is led by Dick (Kevin Bacon), a macho intellectual cowboy who has charisma enough to say, “I’m post-idea,” and pull it off. Chris is instantly smitten, with the kind of open lust that, in entertainment, we most often see reversed, with a man physically obsessed with a woman. Amid air-brushed softcore fantasies about Dick, Chris finds something creatively inspiring in her infatuation, and she begins writing explicit letters to Dick that she doesn’t plan to send. In a twist, Sylvere begins to find sexual excitement in being cuckolded by his wife, and his sex life with Chris heats up.
For his part, Dick — a sculptor who hasn’t made a new piece in years — is underwhelmed by Chris. In the first episode, she explains her most recent film to him, telling him that the female lead “represents all women — society’s, you know, crushing expectations.” His reaction: “It sounds horrible.” Then he drops this bomb: “Ultimately, most films made by women aren’t that good.” Does that make Chris hate Dick? Nope. The sexism and insults only seem to fuel her fixation — and therefore Sylvere’s sexual stimulation. They’re both triggered by humiliation. Dick is laconic like a Western hero, but he’s a disdainful mansplainer, a combination that Bacon brings to life, even though Dick is mostly just a symbol in the script.
The Marfa scene is filled with ambitious young artists, including a lesbian playwright named Devon (Roberta Colindrez) — the show’s most beguiling character — who is creatively turned on by Chris’s obsession, and starts turning it into a play. That obsession is a kind of creative tsunami in “I Love Dick,” as it seems to pull everyone into its wake — even Soloway and co-creator Sarah Gubbins, who linger on images of Bacon with the artsy longing of a perfume commercial, particularly in one scene that finds him diving naked into a pool. Devon begins an affair with Toby (India Menuez) — the show’s most affected character — and they push into questions of gender identification. But in the first five episodes, neither seems to fit naturally into Chris’s story.
The acting is fine all around, with Hahn trying her damnedest to be fierce but flappable, but that doesn’t keep the characters from becoming tiresome. The Pfeffermans of “Transparent” aren’t generally likable, but ultimately they’re fascinating in the many ways they deal with their rare situations. The more cerebral “I Love Dick” characters aren’t likable either, for the most part, and, sadly, they never become fascinating, either.
I LOVE DICK
Starring: Kathryn Hahn, Kevin Bacon, Griffin Dunne, Roberta Colindrez, India Menuez
On: Amazon, season one available Friday
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.