If you’re anything like me, you’re constantly behind on television, so much so that you might have let Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the Douglas Adams-based dramedy starring Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett, slip through the cracks when it premiered last year.
This isn’t just a mistake because of the wonderful zaniness of the show in its own right, but because Dirk Gently is the perfect show to watch in the age of peak television and content. It is a palate cleanser for all of the tropey, formula-driven shows you are watching elsewhere. It is TV therapy for a pop culture moment where, in the rush to get out as much content as possible, networks and studios are increasingly relying on formula to get eyeballs to their on-screen stories.
“Everything in Dirk is an attack on formula,” show creator Max Landis told us at New York Comic Con when we asked about the formula-busting content of his show. “I still use formulas and there are secret formulas. My stuff that I do subconsciously — there are repeating themes in my work, if you look — but a lot of them are deliberate subversions.”
The first episode of Season 2, set to premiere this Saturday on BBC America, opens with a gay, pink-haired prince off to fulfill his destiny. It both plays into the generic properties of a fantasy prince character — strong and brave and good with a sword (this is not a pun) — while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of what kind of character fantasy princes are usually allowed to be.
Later, a frustrated Dirk Gently asks the character keeping him captive, “I’m supposed to, what … touch my forehead and do a constipated face, and things get better?” It seems like a direct dig at shows like Sherlock or Doctor Who or things not written by Steven Moffat, and probably is, given Landis’ assertion that he is “constantly” thinking about subverting formula.
This may be a fantastical world, but it is never a world without struggle or consequences. In a peak TV landscape filled with competency porn, where main characters are hardly ever allowed to be fallible, even and perhaps especially when they are anti-heroes, Dirk Gently refuses to fall in line.
“That element of being deliberately subversive and attacking tropes,” Landis continues, “especially of having a lead cast of characters who are not equipped to deal with what they’re dealing with, and who fail at dealing with it, constantly. And writing that… it causes subversions, even if you don’t mean to because if I go into it thinking, ‘Everything has to be hard. Everything has to cause them struggle,’ it makes subversions because no one’s a badass.”
Dirk Gently will be adding to its cast of not-badass characters in Season 2. Two familiar genre faces on the scene are Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine. What drew them to the project?
“The originality,” said Tudyk, who will be playing Blackwing bounty hunter Mr. Priest. “We don’t get a lot of that. A lot of shows that are successful right now or that people tune into have originality. It’s not a single thing. This comes from the mind of Max Landis, and that’s an original mind.”
Speaking about the “quirk” factor of the show, Labine, who will be playing well-intentioned cop character Sherlock Hobbs, said: “It feels like we’re shooting a live-action cartoon. Just the stakes are so ridiculous and things don’t make sense, but they do, and, as an actor, you really get to swing for the fences every time.”
“Dirk gives people permission to celebrate their weirdness, celebrate their oddities,” series star Jade Eshete (Farah) told us at SDCC. “These are things I think we try to hide and not really embrace. Dirk showcases these, and says, ‘Here are all these weirdos and they’re the leads of this show, and they’re amazing.'”
“We would normally be the outcasts or the side characters on any other show,” echoed Hannah Marks (Amanda), “but on this show, we get to save the day. And in very broad ways, everyone is very imperfect.”
As this fan-crafted video points out, not only are all of the characters in Dirk Gently giant losers, but they are barely functioning human beings, which makes you not only care and relate to them, but also worry about them.
In a television landscape of overcompetent, god-like characters, Dirk Gently has entire scenes in which the “good” guys and “bad” guys yell questions at one another because neither group has any idea what’s going on. It’s incredibly liberating.
Formula subversion wouldn’t be enough if you didn’t care about the characters — at least not for this viewer. But Dirk Gently has, at its heart, an incredible empathy and compassion for its characters, even the terrible ones.
When I asked Landis about the bro-soldier villain who acts as one of the main antagonists on the show, he launched into an in-character defense of the character, showcasing the degree to which he (and the rest of the writers room) goes to get inside the head of his characters.
Elijah Wood (Todd) describes its appeal like this: “As much as it’s a mystery-based show and an exploration of different genres, which it definitely is — it’s sci-fi and action and comedy, it’s all sorts of things wrapped up into one — but, essentially, it’s about humans.”
It’s about people. The core of the storytelling is not resting its hat on the fun of the mystery. If you sort of took that out of it, you are left with a series of characters who I think are very human and interesting.
Dirk Gently, despite its violence and occasional horror, is actually a pretty uplifting show — not because its characters never make bad or selfish decisions, but because it recogizes the madness of the world and of those of us who live in it.
It also gives those characters something bigger to believe. In some ways, that Something Bigger is the universe itself, which guides Dirk’s “detecting,” but, in more ways, it is the family this surprisingly big-hearted show is creating for its gang of misfits.
“[Max has] written people who really struggle emotionally with themselves and are quite dysfunctional,” says series star Samuel Barnett (Dirk.) “[They] have shame and guilt, and a backstory, and yet every day they’re struggling to get up and atone and make things better for themselves, and other people. And if that’s not a reflection of what people do in their lives quietly, and normally, really being human, then I don’t know that is.”
Dirk Gently Season 1 is now available to binge on Hulu. Season 2 premieres this Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.
Read the full Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine right here!