This review contains spoilers.
Following sluggishly on the heels of a promising-but-not-without-its-problems 2010 pilot comes episode one of the BBC’s three-part comedy Dirk Gently, based on (but tellingly not adapted from) the novels by Douglas Adams.
Dirk Gently stars Stephen Mangan as the titular holistic detective, with Darren Boyd as Richard Macduff, reimagined for TV as a limp Watson-a-like sidekick.
The bad news? Whether you keep the source material in mind or treat it as an original venture, it still doesn’t quite work. Fingers crossed that the coming episodes settle into their groove, but on the basis of this opener, Svlad Cjelli was better off left dealing with electric monks and Norse Gods between the covers of a book.
Despite the fondness many of us feel for the BBC2 Hitchhiker’s series, it’s always seemed something of a fool’s errand to try and tamp Adams’ eclectic, spilling-over-at-the-sides, verbally plump imagination into a TV-sized container. Radio absolutely – after all, it’s where it all began for Adams – but telly? Too small and too… square.
This episode’s plot, inspired in part by a throwaway gag from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, concerned a paranoid programmer whose “Reason” software provides rationale for any act you need justification for committing. It’s a programme the Pentagon was keen to get its hands on for reasons of territorial expansion, and believing it was in the possession of Gently, a game of hunt the holistic detective ensued.
Meanwhile, the detective agency’s bread-and-butter clients (old ladies with missing cats) had been side lined by a wife (Cosima Shaw) worried her husband was having an affair, and that same husband (Paul Ritter) convinced his horoscopes were coming true. He was; they weren’t, as it turned out.
A further plot (the fundamental connectedness of which is presumably to be discovered at a later date), saw Gently receiving anonymous, crazed Valentines from his resignation-happy secretary (Lisa Jackson).
Mangan is good as Dirk, equal parts laziness, mania and naked egotism, showing scant regard for banalities like the law or the feelings of others. Cramming the character’s odd genius and esoteric belief system into an hour of TV action though, left him feeling oddly under-stuffed, like a tie-in Dirk Gently toy that squeaked out the catchphrase “fundamentally interconnected” whenever its string was pulled.
The script didn’t help. If you’d drunk a shot every time Mangan was made to repeat the words above, you might have ended up plastered enough to find it all hilarious.
Not that there weren’t laughs to be had – the Zen navigation stuff was great, and the business with the chair was worth a chuckle – but episode one never hit its comedy stride, which is surprising given the calibre of those involved.
Howard Overman’s Misfits is one of the best UK TV shows around (sci-fi or otherwise) and consistently good for a laugh. If BBC4 was hoping to mirror that success then it’s likely to be disappointed. Speaking of other successful TV shows, a dark cloud hung heavily over this episode, specifically, a dark cloud in a well-cut coat.
Whether it’s just a case of Sherlock being so fresh in our minds, or whether someone behind Dirk Gently was deliberately attempting to have comparisons drawn, the BBC One tent-pole loomed large.
From the slimmed down moniker, to the premise of a sociopathic amateur detective delivering mile-a-minute monologues accompanied by an exasperated, slightly sarcastic sidekick, it seemed (somewhat fittingly, I suppose, seeing as the Holmes archetype was borrowed from to create Dirk) as if Adams’ eccentric comic narratives had been reimagined as Sherlock-lite. The constant recap shots seemed to ape Sherlock director Paul McGuigan’s visual quirks and – though this may well just be me – even the score seemed startlingly reminiscent of the other detective show’s twangy theme.
Which brings us to the episode’s final problem. A comedy detective show that’s not packing enough comedy can redeem itself if it spins a sufficiently engaging detective story. That, sadly, wasn’t the case here.
Is it not the point of detective stories to keep audiences largely in the dark until greater deductive powers than our own unfurl the mystery at hand? We can guess and speculate, but the fun is in being proven right or wrong come the reveal.
Part of the reason then, that episode one of Dirk Gently made for such frustrating viewing, is that its audience was kept a step ahead of its detective. The fake grieving wife, the tube of mints, the pick-pocketing orderly…, they were all so clearly signalled it all felt oddly like watching CBBC at times.
Having enjoyed the pilot (admittedly, under a mulled wine-induced fog), loved the books, and admired those involved, I very much wanted to like Dirk Gently, but couldn’t help feeling it was all less than the sum of its parts.
The show didn’t have faith that its audience could either keep up with the plot or put up with more than a sprinkling of Douglas Adams’ exquisite weirdness, making it difficult to have much faith in Dirk Gently in return.