This year, we've asked 10 writers to pick some of their favourite TV episodes from 2017 and weigh in on why they were great stand-alone eps and the highlights of our viewing year. Today: Rob Sheffield on I Love Dick's "A Short History of Weird Girls."
Let's hear it for the boy. "Dear Dick: I've been horny since I was six," Kathryn Hahn announces at the beginning of "A Short History of Weird Girls," the standout episode from I Love Dick. The Amazon drama is Jil Soloway's brilliant satire of the masculine mystique, starring Kevin Bacon as the obscure object of desire. Hahn stars as an indie film-maker who drifts into a small-town Texas art colony, only to find herself inexplicably attracted to the resident philosopher king, Bacon's Dick. Here, she delves into her backstory, along with three other artists around town – four totally different women, yet all obsessed with the title character in their own ways. "I forgot what lust felt like till I met you," Hahn's Chris says to the camera. "I don't care how you see me. I don't care if you want me – it's better that you don't. It's enough that I want you."
You don't necessarily have to watch the rest of I Love Dick to prep for "A Short History of Weird Girls" – it stands on its own as an inventively exhilarating, abrasively funny 21-minute tour de force. These four women deliver monologues about their sex lives, their creative struggles, their childhood memories. Dick doesn't get a word in – he's a mute presence stretched on the couch, naked except for a strategically draped Navajo blanket. He's only there as a muse, to get these women telling their own stories about how different kinds of desire have messed them up.
The episode, directed by Soloway and co-written by Heidi Schreck and Annie Baker, takes off (like the whole series) from Chris Kraus' 1997 cult novel. In the novel, Dick is based on British cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, whose Subculture: The Meaning of Style had a spot on every Eighties college geek's bookshelf. In the series, Dick is a hard-drinking sculptor who swaggers like a cowboy as he lords it over the (fictional) Marfa Institute, though he hasn't finished any actual work in 10 years. Chris spends I Love Dick trying to see through this male kingpin's aura of invincibility – a timely conceit, to say the least.
"A Short History of Weird Girls" opens with a clip from experimental filmmaker Naomi Ulman, who made the 1999 short Removed by bleaching the women out of Seventies porn, leaving only images of sad men fumbling with empty blotches. (Imagine the porn equivalent of Garfield Without Garfield.) Chris breaks down the history of her libido – her childhood love was her stuffed rhino, but she graduates to banging English rock stars at the Chelsea Hotel, where she and another female artist try using a musician's body to act out a Louise Bourgeois sculpture. She marries an older writer (Griffin Dunne) whose erratic warmth turns her off sexually. Dick makes a more stimulating lust object because he's so one-dimensional – she got more emotional feedback from the stuffed rhino. And Chris discovers she likes it that way.
Local playwright Devon (Roberta Colindrez) recounts the heartbreak of her college affair with a cellist girlfriend, who left her for a man; she's known Dick since she was a little kid, when her grandparents worked for his family. For her, Dick embodies an arrogance she aspires to: "I loved watching you play cowboy with all your women." Paula (Lily Mojekwu), the curator at the Marfa Institute, declares, "My first great love was Michael J. Fox." (You sure know how to hurt a guy, Paula, since Michael J. Fox had much better luck with Elizabeth Shue in Back to the Future than Bacon did in Hollow Man.) Toby (India Menuez) is a younger artist, born around the time LFO were rapping "I like Kevin Bacon but I hate Footloose" in their hit "Summer Girls." She has devoted her life to the goal of becoming the kind of self-absorbed celebrity-artist douchebag that Dick represents. She begins her tale, "Dear Dick: Or should I say, dear Great Man? Genius. Loner. Cowboy. Shall we go over your many awards and accomplishments?"
At one point, Chris muses: "Sometimes when I walk down the street, I look into the faces of every woman that I pass, and I wonder what she sees. I wonder about the history of her desire." But the punch line of I Love Dick is that none of these characters really wonders much about how other people feel – that's why they've all ended up together in this erotic hothouse of a town, a place populated entirely by narcissists and hustlers. As she did in Transparent, Soloway makes you feel for the most selfish and shallow characters – some of this crew make the Pfeffermans look like the Waltons. Yet that's why Kevin Bacon is the perfect muse for them, whatever role he plays in their fantasy lives: crush, rival, role model. He's the blank space for them to project their own stories, as America has kept doing from Footloose through Wild Things and beyond. And it's why – even though the actor doesn't say anything in "A Short History of Weird Girls" – it might be the ultimate Bacon performance.
The episode evokes a strange artifact from the late 2000s, when the NYC singer-songwriter Doveman (a.k.a. Thomas Bartlett) did a bizarrely poignant cover version of the Footloose soundtrack. He got the inspiration from his friend, artist Gabriel Greenberg, who found the Footloose cassette in the possessions of his late sister. As Greenberg puts it in his touching introduction, "I could step into Jenny's shoes, see things from her vantage point. I could be emancipated by rock & roll and Walkmen, as she had been. We could listen together … With a new Footloose, we could reply to the past, tell our own story about being young." The perky 1980s hits – "Almost Paradise," "Let's Hear It for the Boy," "Dancing in the Sheets" – become mournful dirges full of yearning. That's the kind of fractured desire that "A Short History of Weird Girls" celebrates. As always, Kevin Bacon is only there to give the weird girls a reason to cut footloose.