When Amazon first started making original series, it had a gimmick: The internet’s very own big-box store would put the first episodes of potential series online so viewers could vote on which ones would become full-fledged series. The gambit made the obligatory tech-company gestures at transparency and disruption, but it also reflected the paucity of Amazon’s initial series, a batch of pilots that, excepting Alpha House, barely looked professional. When a network is making such larkish TV, it hardly matters what goes and what doesn’t. In the few years since, as Amazon has gotten more serious about making television, it has continued to put pilots online early, but viewer response is barely relevant: The network is going to greenlight what it is going to greenlight, apparently having discovered that disrupting the television business sometimes involves doing things the old way.
Earlier this summer, Amazon released pilots for two hourlong series: The Interestings (flawed, but promising; not yet picked up) and The Last Tycoon (very bad; picked up). This week, it is releasing pilots for three half-hour series: Jean-Claude Van Johnson, The Tick, and Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick, the headlining act of this trio. Liberally adapted from a beloved cult novel by Chris Kraus, I Love Dick stars Kathryn Hahn as Chris, a stymied filmmaker who travels with her husband Sylvère (Griffin Dunne) to Marfa, Texas—where she, and then they, become infatuated with Dick (Kevin Bacon, smoldering), a macho intellectual and part-time cowboy who runs an institute Sylvère is attending. I Love Dick has potential, but it doesn’t need it: Soloway, the creator of Transparent, is Amazon’s most important creative asset. If you are a network, you give her what she wants, including another show.
Soloway told New York magazine, in a piece about the show, that she identified with Kraus’ choice to use her own name and biography in her work. “I only want to write about somewhat unlikable Jewish women having really inappropriate ideas about life and sex,” Soloway said. I Love Dick delivers on those interests. The pilot reflects many of Soloway’s strengths—her naturalistic skill with actors, her ability to capture bourgeois social milieus with a detail (in this case, fluorescent-yellow Birkenstocks), her dedication to exploring gender politics in ways that don’t turn her shows into lectures—but it doesn’t have the instantaneous hook or heart of Transparent.
I Love Dick, the novel, is epistolary. I Love Dick, the show, is framed by letters Chris has written to Dick. “Dear Dick, every letter is a love letter. It started in New York,” Hahn says in harried voiceover at the start of the show as the block text dramatically appears on an all-red screen. But turning the novel into a TV show takes it out of Kraus’ character’s head in a way that alters the texture and tone, losing some of the hothouse intensity of the novel. Television does a great close third-person, but it is very hard, if not impossible, for it do first-person, even when using first-person narration. (Recently, Mr. Robot has made some attempts.) With TV, you’re always watching from the outside. The world that Chris and Sylvère inhabit in the show automatically feels bigger, more populated, and more concrete than their world in the novel, simply because you can see all the people in the shot that the writing might have ignored. The pilot also introduces characters who are not in the book at all. Also not in the book: Marfa. Soloway decided to set the show there after visiting her girlfriend, the poet Eileen Myles, there, and deciding it would be a good cross-cultural canvas to help broaden the novel’s scope.
There are people who have a hard time watching Transparent because they find the Pfeffermans too excruciating. On Transparent, Hahn’s Rabbi Raquel, the on-again, off-again love interest of Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass), works like aspirin: Raquel is so grounded, so sane that she lessens the pain of watching the Pfeffermans mess up their lives. In I Love Dick, Hahn, fantastic in everything she does, gets to play the headache. Her Chris has a big, blowsy personality: caustic, dramatic, and self-sabotaging. But she has that Pfefferman-esque charisma. When she spots Dick at a party—Kevin Bacon wears a white T-shirt as well as he did in Footloose—and expresses her attraction by jabbering about how remarkable it is that he goes by “Dick” and not Richard or Rick or Richie, her allure is nonetheless plain to see.
In the show’s climactic scene, dinner at a restaurant, Dick asks Chris what her movie is about. “It’s about a couple, or I would say the woman in the couple, she represents all women, and society’s crushing expectations,” she says. “Sounds horrible. Sounds like you’re crushed by someone,” Dick replies, before turning to Sylvère and asking if Chris’ film is any good. The great thing about Soloway’s work is that she herself is both Dick and Chris, a woman interested in society’s crushing expectations of women but also talented and funny and wise enough to know you need character and plot and entertainment and complications to tell that story—that you need people, not symbols. You need a blowsy New Yorker who rolls into Marfa in a jumpsuit and neon Birkenstocks with her own unhinged plans about what to do with a lustworthy macho intellectual cowboy named Dick.