What Does the New Show I Love Dick Say About Marfa?
A new Amazon Prime show is partially set in the West Texas town, the latest Hollywood-ification of the far-flung locale.
Though only a pilot has been filmed, it’s highly likely I Love Dick, Amazon’s new Marfa-set comedy, will get a full season order. This is largely due to the show’s creator, Jill Soloway. It’s her sophomore effort for the online-retail-behemoth-turned-original-programmer, and considering that Soloway’s first show, Transparent, was a massive hit—garnering praise from audiences, critics and Emmy voters alike—and essentially put Amazon’s production company on the map, it’s safe to say the company will let her do whatever she wants. Plus, Dick has already received substantial high-profile press attention, including a feature in New York Magazine, interviews with stars from the show in Vogue and Variety, and glowing reviews from Vulture, The Huffington Post and The New York Times. At this point, I Love Dick is not only going to be a TV show, but a hit TV show.
Based on that pilot episode, which premiered on Amazon Prime on August 19th, it will also soon join the ranks of Boyhood, Friday Night Lights, Lonesome Dove, and other zeitgeist-y works of fiction that have a lot to say about Texas. The question is, what does Dick have to say about Marfa?
I Love Dick is the adaptation of a feminist cult classic novel set in Pasadena, California, and New York City, but Soloway chose to put her version in Marfa, so there must be something about the West Texas art hub that she believed would add value to the story. The story centers around failed independent filmmaker Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) who follows her writer husband, Sylvére, (Griffin Dunne) to a residency at the fictional Marfa Institute. While there, she develops a sexual obsession with the Institute’s proprietor, Dick Jarrett, played by Kevin Bacon, (who is poised for a Keaton-as-Birdman type of career resurgence).
The Marfa we see in I Love Dick would be recognizable to anyone who’s read about the town of 2,000 people in Vanity Fair or Vogue. It is the romanticized Marfa ideal for the transplanted artist. It’s quirky and quaint, with a picturesque expansiveness that starkly juxtaposes the cramped New York City apartment in which the episode begins. What Marfa lacks in amenities (at one point Chris says their new house is “like the fucking Amish”) it makes up for in pastoral charm.
This Marfa is a bubble. Though Soloway and her co-writer, Sarah Gubbins, cast recognizable locals in cameo roles, the pilot introduces only one native-Marfan character, Devon, the Institute’s groundskeeper. She functions as a guide of sorts, advising Chris to trade in her Birkenstocks for boots and telling her not to smoke pot outside because the Presidio County Sheriff’s Department doesn’t “like the artists.” Through Devon, we are provided glimpses to a Marfa that’s not merely the playground of the artistic elite, but an actual place, with rattlesnakes and scorpions and conservative cops.
Devon’s practical advice helps to frame the absurdity of next scene. Midway through the episode, Chris and Sylvére go to a reception at the Marfa Institute and the conversations that take place there are laughably pretentiousness. Choice lines include “My wife complains to me all the time about how I’m obsessed with models of poverty!” and “There’s Marfa realness, there’s Marfa ‘realness,’ and there’s ‘Marfa realness.’” When Sylvére attempts to impress a young woman by telling her an anecdote about Japanese koi pedicures, she shuts him down by saying she’s seen them in Bali. Then she tells him his face looks melancholy and ruined.
It’s clear I Love Dick is satirizing Marfa’s art community. Many of the shows funniest moments occur when characters are describing their work. Take Sylvére , who has come to Marfa to reinterpret the Holocaust (“there’s something new afoot,” he says repeatedly) and Dick, a writing teacher who hasn’t read a book in a decade and considers himself “post-idea.”
In fact, Dick Jarrett’s character is probably the clearest indication that Marfa has specifically shaped the show’s narrative. In the book, Dick is given neither a last name nor much of a personality. Here, Soloway gives him the surname Jarrett—initials D.J.—in what feels like an obvious nod to the artist Donald Judd. Judd was a prolific sculptor who abandoned New York City in the seventies to live and work in Marfa, purchasing an old Army base and transforming it into the Chinati Foundation, the Marfa Institute’s real world counterpart. Like Judd, Dick is idolized by the local art community (Dick’s writing seminar has a two-year waiting list), but he mostly keeps to himself on a ranch just outside of town.
According to Texas Monthly’s own Francesca Mari, Donald Judd believed that “art that did not consider its surroundings was an imposition,” and it seems Dick Jarrett would also share the sentiment that art cannot be autonomous from the space—physical or mental—the art and artist inhabit. In what is probably the pilot’s most memorable scene (and the best depiction of “mansplaining” that may ever exist on film), Dick says women rarely make good films because “they have to work from behind their oppression, which makes for some bummer movies.” Chris is enraged, and is it in her anger that her sexual obsession with Dick fully takes root.
That this statement is the catalyst for Chris’s obsession is indicative of what show’s central themes will likely be. Ultimately, I suspect I Love Dick will be more about women, men, and the art world’s hypocrisy than it will be about life in rural West Texas. Future episodes may see Chris back in New York City, but the fact that Soloway felt it appropriate to begin her story in Marfa indicates that she finds this hypocrisy already present in Presidio County.
Reviews of the pilot by local Marfans are mixed. According to the Big Bend Sentinel’s Sarah M. Vasquez, some residents are concerned about the attention this new portrayal may bring to the already gentrified town. “I don’t think the show is an overall glowing portrayal of Marfa,” says Vasquez. “If anything, I Love Dick makes light of the quirks we have to endure to live here.”
With only one episode, it’s too early to tell exactly what I Love Dick is really trying to say about Marfa, if anything at all. Since the show’s protagonists are so unlikeable, I get the feeling Soloway is at least partly condemning those who use the town merely as fuel for their artistic pursuits, which is sort of what she herself is doing by setting the show there in the first place.