Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a TV show starring Samuel Barnett, based on the book by Douglas Adams of the same name. It is a BBC America original series, not to be confused with the BBC show starring Stephen Mangan titled simply Dirk Gently. It is available on Netflix and Amazon Instant. The following review contains some season 1 spoilers.
Everybody says Todd Brotzman is an asshole. Todd (played by Elijah Wood) is the most guilty of saying this. He wasn’t good to his family. He was terrible to his band. And you actually wind up feeling his landlord is justified in waving a gun around Todd’s apartment, hunting for the rent money. Nobody likes Dirk Gently either. Dirk (played by Samuel Barnett) is on the run from some hooligans in a van and an assassin carrying a bullet with his name on it. So Todd and Dirk are a perfect match. Except, Dirk is only latching onto Todd because of destiny, and Todd is only being led by Dirk because, well, when you stumble upon the remains of a gruesome shark attack in the penthouse of the hotel you work for, what else are you going to do but follow the person who says he can get all the answers? Unfortunately, the answers seem to be lodged inside a runaway corgi, a steampunk machine in the possession of drones, and a booby-trapped room guarded by an electric rhino.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is not a Douglas Adams show, nor does it try to be. Yes, it has time travel, body swapping, a cat, an annoying detective, and an unwilling assistant—all pieces of Adams’ novel. While it may not be set in Adams’ tone, which backed the wit with intelligence and satire, it is written in the spirit of Adams in the sense that all of Adams’ novels were chaotic and did not follow mainstream story structure. I’m not entirely convinced they followed a structure at all. I think it was only my third reading of the first Dirk Gently novel that I actually understood what the hell is going on. The show is equally confusing for the first few episodes (some would argue more episodes than that). Seemingly aware of this, the season 1 finale recaps the whole season in painful detail just in case you missed it the first three times. Despite the winding subplots and chaotic storytelling, in the end of the novels, as in the end of season 1, we always wind up where we need to be.
The TV show is Fringe meets Repo Man. Dirk’s holistic approach to detecting, and even that he calls himself a detective, is just a mask for the fact that he’s a psychic. There are others like him, such as Bart the holistic assassin, as well as people from the same “Black Wing” program with other special powers, like the energy vampires that are the Rowdy Three. It feels very Fringe (or even X-Men) even before you get to the mysterious pasty bald men following them around. Aaron Douglas’ portrayal of Gordon Rimmer, a loser possessed by the soul of a hippie who previously possessed rock god Luxe de Jour, reminds me of Fox Harris’ Frank Parnell from Repo Man. Others have compared Todd’s journey to that of hapless bellhop Barton Fink, but the comparisons could go on and on. There are a million ideas in this show, many of which have been done before, none of which have previously been done all that the same time.
The acting, writing, and directing is a very mixed bag. Every story line feels like it was directed differently and that the dialogue was written by someone different. For example, Seattle police officers Zimmerfield (Richard Schiff) and Estevez (Neil Brown Jr.) have jokey dialogue and feel like caricatures of cops who try and fail to be intimidating, but this is until their story line gets dark. Yeah, dark. Like way dark. This contrasts with Todd’s relationship with his sister Amanda (Hannah Marks), which will hopefully be fleshed out in season 2 because it’s the real heart of the show. The way Todd has treated his family is what gives him depth. He’s not an innocent bellhop who’s down on his luck. He’s an asshole seeking redemption. Suddenly the jokey dialogue is gone and the show toes the line of emotional complexity.
Although still lacking depth and explanation, the Rowdy Three are a fun part of the show, and I was happy to see Amanda join their ranks. Amanda looks up to Farrah (Jade Eshete), who is trying to recover the missing Lydia Spring (played sometimes by Alison Thorton and sometimes by Bentley the dog). Farrah is your typical bad-ass babysitter type, but then we start to peel back layers and see her insecurity, regrets, and instability. It’s nice to see these glimpses of humanity in an otherwise cast of archetypal characters.
The Oscar, so to speak, though, has to go to Fiona Dourif and Mpho Koaho for their portrayals of Bart and Ken, the holistic assassin and her abductee. Not only is this an original piece of writing that actually feels like Douglas Adams could have come up with it, but Dourif and Koaho out-act all the other people in the show. It feels like they should remain in their own story line, never interacting with the other characters because their performance style is so different to the others’, but of course all the paths will cross in the end. Everything is, after all, connected.