Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: A Cult Classic In the Making

After watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (BBC America, Saturdays 9ET), I am thoroughly confused—and that’s a good thing. To explain why, I could try to describe the experience watching the show—something akin to Doctor Who directed by the Cohen Brothers with a bit of Guy Richie thrown in for good measure—but I suspect that wouldn’t be very helpful, unless you’ve already seen both the episodes and the disparate references I would need to properly explain it. Instead, I’m going to take you back 20 years (don’t worry, as the titular character would say: it’s all connected).

I was a college freshman who had just finished reading Mostly Harmless, the final book in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series by Douglas Adams. To tell you the truth, I was a bit depressed that there were no more Hitchhiker books to read. Then, I found out about the Dirk Gently books. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. Upon reading them, however, I was a bit confused. Each individual incident worked. Some even had that signature Douglas Adams humor. But, overall, the pieces didn’t fit the same way. The narrative seemed disjointed, and the tone—which was darker and stranger than the rollicking Hitchhiker books—wasn’t quite what I expected. Still, the characters and situations were intriguing, and before I knew it, I was drawn in. By the time that Dirk himself actually turns up—more than a third of the way through the book—I knew I’d keep reading through the end, and indeed through both Dirk Gently novels. These days, I find myself referencing Dirk nearly as much as The Hitchhiker’s Guide, though fewer people seem to get the allusions.

I anticipated the first episode of the television adaptation with the same eager excitement that I felt when starting the novels. After watching the first two episodes, I’ve experienced the same bewilderment. There is so much going on here that it is difficult to process. It’s interesting, compelling even, but also disconcerting in that the pieces don’t quite fit yet—and it is so utterly unlike anything I have seen on television before that I’m not exactly sure what to make of it. Normally, if I was that confused by a TV show adapted from a novel that I love, I would hate it—I’m a traditionalist when it comes to adaptations—but, strangely, I feel like this sense of confusion is showrunner Max Landis’ biggest achievement: it is not easy to utterly perplex the segment of his viewership which is intimately familiar with the source material. Whether or not he can pull it together into a satisfactory conclusion within the next six episodes remains to be seen; it is unfair to judge until after those episodes are released.

Now, I don’t want to mislead anybody: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency the television program is not a faithful adaptation of the novel with the same name. There are no Kublai Khan readings, no jokes about Beetles songs, and no horses stuck in bathrooms (although a corgi, a kitten, and, apparently a hammerhead shark do figure prominently in the first two episodes). Thus far, there are no professors of chronology, and while there may or may not be electric time traveling monks, they definitely don’t fulfill the same function as the monk in the original novel does. Aside from the titular character and the general premise of Dirk investigating the murder of a multi-millionaire, the show borrows little from the novel aside from an occasional throw-away reference (about a couch, say, or Thor) or quote as sop for fans of the source material. Indeed, it is probably better to consider this version of Dirk Gently as a sequel rather than an adaptation—much like The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul (the second Dirk Gently novel) featured only three of the same characters as the original novel.

In this version, Dirk, played by Samuel Barnett, is hired to investigate the murder of a millionaire—by the victim himself—six weeks before said victim is murdered in a hotel penthouse. Barnett plays the role in a way reminiscent to Matt Smith’s Doctor on cocaine, alternating between presenting himself as the (only?) character in the know, and being just as clueless and confused as everyone else. Though he claims to be “a leaf on the wind” of creation, he drives the show, and your opinion of the program may hinge on whether you find his performance charismatic or overbearing.

Barnett is joined by Todd, played by Elijah Woods, Dirk’s reluctant sidekick and, according to Dirk, his best friend. As the first episode begins, Todd starts the show as a bellhop in the very hotel where the murder takes place—which is what connects him to Dirk and the case that he is investigating–although he is fired soon thereafter. He reluctantly follows Dirk on his adventures, initially because of Dirk’s tenuous promise of monetary compensation, and later because the universe seems to have designated him as a focal point in the case. He also serves as the viewer’s anchor amidst the chaos. Wood’s role is reminiscent of the Doctor’s companions or Sherlock’s Watson, though unlike these characters he is a reluctant participant in the action. Still, Todd is the one bastion of normalcy amid the absurd chaos that surrounds him. Viewers are likely to identify with his motivations—he needs money to make rent and to buy the medicine that his sister, Amanda (Hannah Marks) needs to treat “pararibulitis,” a condition which causes her to have hallucinations she believes are real. This will give them something to hold on to as they, along with Todd, try to piece together this strange new world.

Wood’s performance is excellent, and his reactions to the ridiculous situations in which he finds himself—ranging from anger to indifference to exasperation—often mirror the viewer’s own. Although he initially rejects his connection to Dirk, by the end of the second episode he seems hooked until the end of the ride, determined to find out what his significance is in the mystery in which he has unwittingly become involved. As the second episode progresses, Todd takes the lead in many of the scenes, a development which bodes well for future episodes.

The report between Wood and Barnett is somewhat strained in the first episode, probably because of Landis’ decision to change Dirk’s backstory. Because Dirk and Todd have no prior connection (unlike the novel’s Dirk who went to college with Richard, who is Todd’s equivalent in that story), their initial encounters are often awkward. By the second episode, as Todd becomes more invested in the case, these issues are largely resolved. The tension between the two leads is still there, but the awkwardness is gone as they begin to work together to try and solve the mystery.

The leads are supported by a motely crew of cops and criminals. The most interesting of these is Bart, played by Fiona Dourif, a holistic assassin whose story parallels Dirk’s own. Although Bart holds many of the same views as Dirk, she ultimately wants to kill him, despite the fact that the two have never met. She also randomly kills most of those who cross her path. As a holistic assassin, the universe delivers her targets. Strangely, she does not kill Ken, a hacker whom she initially mistakes for Dirk Gently. Ken, played by Mpho Koaho, plays the Todd to her Dirk once Bart kidnaps him, and unlike the two leads, they click right away. Dourif and Koaho are clearly having fun with the absurd situation in which they find themselves, which shines through in all the scenes in which they appear. The parallels between Dirk and Bart clearly hint at some encounter later in the season.

The scale of the show is so large that it is difficult to cover all of the characters and plotlines. There are at least three different sets of cops and agents working for various government agencies, both known and secret. The best of these are Estevez and Zimmerman (played by Neil Brown Jr, and Richard Schiff, respectively) who remind me of Croup and Vandermar from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. There are also at least two supernatural criminal organizations, including the Rowdy 3 (there are four of them, they know), following Dirk, Todd, and Farah Black (Jade Eshete) the dead millionaire’s (remember him?) security officer.

All of this can be difficult to follow, which as mentioned above, is probably the point. Viewers will want to piece together the clues, but will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and plot twists. They also may be distracted by the high level of violence, which could seem out of place in a Douglas Adams adaptation, but should hardly be surprising in a show produced by the same people who brought us The Walking Dead.

Ultimately, I believe the show will become a cult classic. I found it entertaining, and like Todd and Ken, am in for the duration, but the show requires effort on the part of the viewer, which may hinder its commercial success. Those looking for the next Doctor Who or Sherlock will surely be disappointed, but those who give it a chance and trust that, in the end, it is indeed all connected, will be rewarded. If Landis is able to pull together the myriad of disparate threads introduced in the first two episodes, his show will garner a dedicated following. To go back to my original analogy, while the show may never be as popular as The Hitchhiker’s Guide, it has a good chance to truly be the television version of Douglas Adams’ other series, which is really all we can ask for from a series called Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.


Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari .

 

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