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A Groundbreaking Episode of TV, Thanks to Playwrights

“I Love Dick” is an adaptation of the 1997 book by Chris Kraus, a smart and dizzy work of autofiction, in which a married narrator much like Ms. Kraus details her obsession with a media theorist named Dick. In Mx. Soloway’s adaptation, created with Sarah Gubbins, the action has moved to Marfa, Tex., where Chris, an experimental filmmaker, becomes fixated by Dick, who leads an artist’s colony and occasionally shears sheep. She writes him a series of hectic, breathless lust letters.


Heidi Schreck, left, and Annie Baker.

The fifth episode doesn’t advance the romantic plot; it does something a lot braver, in a manner as formally ambitious as anything on “Mr. Robot” or “Master of None” or “The Leftovers.” It insists — here comes the revolutionary part — that sexual identity is crucial to a broader sense of identity, of a piece with emotional and intellectual development. Other episodes in the series play Chris’s helpless lust for laughs, but this one takes women’s desires seriously in all their convolution and excitement and shame.

“I don’t care how you see me,” Chris tells an imagined Dick. “I don’t care if you want me. It’s better that you don’t. It’s enough that I want you.”

Maybe that doesn’t sound so world-shattering to you. It does to me.

I’ve spent my adult life as a theater critic, which means accepting that in a lot of what I see, female characters will be relegated to tidy niches (girlfriend or mother, temptress or innocent), the better to tell men’s stories. If women’s sexual desire is discussed at all, it’s usually presented as pathetic (Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” say) or screwy (like Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire”), while what men see and want and do typically drives the action.

Often that’s O.K. I like men. I like their stories. I’m a big Sam Shepard fan. But seeing women too expansive and untidy for pigeonholing narrate their own lives, well, that’s a thrill. So is their demand to be seen as flawed heroes instead of helpmates, sexual subjects as well as sexual objects. Though the format of the “Dear Dick” letters might suggest that each woman is defining herself in relation to him, in this episode the objectified Dick is on the sidelines, on a sofa, wearing nothing but a Navajo blanket. (No complaints.)

If the stories in “A Short History of Weird Girls” feel real, it’s because they are. In the “I Love Dick” writers’ room, staffed exclusively with women and those who don’t identify as male or female, writers were asked to share their own sexual experiences. After a week binge-watching films by artists such as Hito Steyerl, Agnes Varda and Chantal Akerman, Ms. Baker and Ms. Schreck assembled those stories into the four monologues.

Ms. Baker declined to discuss the episode. (Her most recent play, “The Antipodes,” depicts a writers’ room, but it’s more macho and apocalyptic than intimate.) But Ms. Schreck, who spoke over a latte in a cafe near her Park Slope home and who credits Ms. Baker with the episode’s genesis, sees “A Short History of Weird Girls” as a deliberate corrective to the television and movies she saw as a teenager and a young woman. A fan of horror films, she “associated trying sex with getting killed, from the time I was probably 13 or 14,” she said.


Chris Kraus, the author of the book “I Love Dick.”

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

“Growing up, almost all the sex scenes I saw were made by men, written by men,” she said. “I couldn’t find myself in there. I was always craving sex scenes that felt like what sex was to me.” Ms. Schreck, who used at least one of her own stories in the Chris section, said that the “I Love Dick” episode “was a great experiment in allowing sexuality to feel as unpredictable and varied as it does in your own psyche.”

(I should note that Ms. Schreck, who is also an actress, appeared in one of the oddest and funniest sexual situations that’s ever lodged in my psyche, in Erin Courtney’s 2004 stage comedy, “Demon Baby.” I should also note that she recently sold a series based on Mary Gaitskill’s “Bad Behavior,” another work that takes female sexuality seriously, to the Sundance Channel.)

Mx. Soloway, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, described feeling “a little bit scared” upon seeing the script and its heavy use of voice-over. Then Mx. Soloway began “to imagine this episode as these women giving their testimonies in the court of the world” and decided to submit it as an entry to this year’s Emmy Awards, in part to encourage the thousands of members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to watch it, too.

“You reel a little bit after watching it,” Mx. Soloway said. “You just kind of go: ‘What was that? Was that an episode of television? What did I just see?’”

If we’re being writers’-room honest, I don’t love everything about the episode. There’s some confusion as to when and why the present-day women stand apart from their histories and when they embed themselves in flashbacks. It’s also unclear whether the glowing blur that occasionally overtakes them (a homage to Naomi Uman’s experimental film “Removed”) represents sexual desire or a more comprehensive sense of identity.

But when I watched it, it made me reel. When I streamed it again, more reeling. Dear Dick, Thanks.

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