Despite the perpetually stuck sofas and the alien ghosts and time travelling, Douglas Adams’ delightfully nutty book Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency somehow completely hangs together. For all its weird digressions and laundry list of characters it was clear there was a method to the madness, and with Adams we were always in safe hands. There was never the sense that either Dirk Gently or the follow-up, The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul was too scattershot and ultimately, Adams more or less pulled his various narrative strands together. Could the latest attempt to adapt the story for TV pull off the same thing?
Aside from transplanting Dirk’s Cambridge-based 80s adventures to a modern Seattle setting and excising characters like Professor Chronotis, BBC America’s flash new series has a bigger elephant in the room. The man behind it is controversial figure Max Landis, whose talents are actually put to good use here – Landis’ penchant for sharp repartee is entirely in keeping with the source material; all he has to do is turn up the weird factor. The approach of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks is also very Landis-ish but he makes it work better here than he did in, say, tonally confused action-comedy American Ultra.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has next to nothing in common with the books in terms of plot (stray references to past cases with a sofa and Thor don’t really count) but its connective tissue is the spirit of Dirk Gently, which is manifest here. The BBC America series’ mission statement is exploring the fundamental interconnectedness of things and the subtle connection between cause and effect, which is the bedrock of Dirk Gently. The pilot episode is messy in the extreme; there’s not exactly an A-plot and a B-plot, more of an A-Z-plot, and so there’s a lot to get your head around. Still, when Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency calms down after a couple of episodes it starts to develop its characters and the show builds upon its core mysteries.
When the series opens we’re first introduced to Todd (played by Elijah Wood), a put-upon bellboy struggling to pay his rent and treatment for his ailing sister. Dirk swiftly crashes into his life at the same time as we’re introduced to a slew of random, unrelated plots – a businessman’s murder, a missing young girl, a ‘holistic assassin’, a group of biker gang-style anarchists, a rogue corgi – which, as is the Dirk Gently way, are all connected somehow. Thus, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency requires patience and viewers need to be willing to play the long game if they want answers or at least some idea of the relevance of certain plots. If you don’t get that Dirk Gently is a tapestry of stories that all come together then you’re more or less missing the point of the series.
As for Dirk himself, Samuel Barnett is good value even if his portrayal of the detective is significantly different from Stephen Mangan and (on radio) Harry Enfield before him. He’s still a well-mannered yet weird Englishman but Landis writes him and Barnett plays him as more of a hyperactive klutz. If Dirk Gently as a character originally took his cues from the Fourth Doctor then Samuel Barnett very much takes his cues from the Eleventh Doctor. As Todd, Elijah Wood is fine but his character is a foil for Dirk, a straight man to look appalled and shocked by every one of Dirk’s outlandish suggestions and quirks, which, initially, doesn’t leave much material for Wood to work with.
An all-in-one Netflix release will greatly benefit Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency as its various mysteries and twisty narrative frequently leave you craving answers, which the show more or less delivers down the line. The back end of season one nicely sets up its already commissioned second outing and the hope is that Landis will have listened to his critics and ironed out the show’s kinks when it returns next year.
As a freewheeling comedy-thriller, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is agreeably daft entertainment even if it doesn’t crib heavily from Douglas Adams’ novels, serving as an incredibly loose adaptation. From the off Max Landis sets up a compelling story with a whole host of varying plot strands (so diverse they would do Adams proud), and Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood make for an entertaining odd couple. It’s undoubtedly flawed – it might be too overstuffed for some viewers’ liking – but there’s a lot of fun to be had in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.