To adapt any Douglas Adams property, one must be confident, ambitious, foolhardy and willing to fail big time. Creator Max Landis is all of those things, and for all of its faults, at least his take on “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is wholly its own spastic, frantic and technicolor beast.
Adams’ books are not necessarily sacred texts (some may disagree), but his absolute mastery of the absurd balanced with his satirical take on human nature and an overarching cosmic view is difficult to approximate, much less imitate. Even his most adapted series “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” has had its share of tepid if not cringe-worthy transitions to the screen.
With the lesser known “Dirk Gently,” more license is given because its story and the author’s observational tone are less accessible. In fact, Landis doesn’t even try and has thrown out Adams’ plot completely, only retaining its titular hero and his unique skills. This isn’t the first time this has been done either. The 2012 version starring Stephen Mangan uses a few of the same character names, but many of the episodic adventures were freshly created cases set in Adams’ world.
What matters is that Adams’ sensibility and tone carry through. Unfortunately, what Noah Hawley did so brilliantly by mimicking the Coen Brothers for FX’s “Fargo” series, Landis falls short of with “Dirk Gently.” Sure, he has approximated the wacky unexpectedness of events that may seem whimsical on the surface, but will eventually all make sense. But where Landis truly misses the mark though is in the character of Dirk Gently himself, and this is a massive problem.
Dirk is so utterly and relentlessly annoying and unlikeable in the pilot that we want nothing more than to punch him not so (Dirk) gently into that good night. And judging by how his assistant Todd manhandles and berates him, we’re not alone. This is not the fault of actor Samuel Barnett, who brings the proper manic energy and loquaciousness that is required of the role as it is written without taking huge gulping gasps of air. Rather, in the three episodes given to critics for review, Dirk lacks enough opportunities to be anything but a zany speedster who babbles paragraphs at you rather than converses with you. It’s not just off-putting but distancing as well.
The lack of connection — tragically ironic for a character who operates on the inherent “interconnectedness” of all things for his profession — leaves the viewer floundering to find someone to latch onto. And while some in the parade of grotesques can be a bit one-note and lacking charm, a few of them exhibit enough humanity to be relatable.
Elijah Wood as Todd is the everyman who’s been conscripted into helping Dirk. The actor brings a similar earnest but exasperated air to his role as he did in FX’s bizarre but hilarious “Wilfred.” Although it’s easy in some ways to relate to Todd, especially since his face is so open and familiar, even his introduction is rushed. Before we even get to know him, he’s thrust into a deranged situation with his destructive landlord, and both Todd and we as viewers are left only to react, not understand.
Instead, it’s two other characters whose stories are far more compelling. First up is Todd’s sister Amanda (Hannah Marks), who suffers from a fictional disease that causes hallucinations of incredibly painful physical experiences that leave her cowering in the safety of her own home lest she run out of meds and suffer a public episode. Despite these fears and setbacks, she’s cool and mouthy and even plays the drums like a badass. It’s heartening and admirable to see over the course of the series how she tests her boundaries.
Even more surprising is Fiona Dourif, who plays the supremely scary and weirdly gravel-voiced Bart Curlish. As a counterpart to Dirk’s holistic detective, Bart is a holistic assassin, which means that wherever the winds of fate brings her, someone is destined to die by her hand. And from this grim and preposterous premise emerges an almost childlike character who is full of vulnerability and the ability to embrace the moment. Bart communicates such infectious glee and wonder, traits that are only hinted at with Dirk. Her burgeoning relationship with her bewildered hostage-friend Ken (Mpho Koaho) is also a delight.
So far, the meat of this review has focused on the characters and that’s because their strength is what the show rests upon. As the showrunner had told IndieWire, the particulars of the case Dirk is trying to solve don’t really matter overall in trying to do justice to Adams, and it certainly feels that way.
On one hand, that creates more emotional detachment in the viewer, which is unfortunate. On the other hand, that keeps the story light, which could be a saving grace since Landis has thrown so many storylines and characters and ideas into each hour that it’s sensory and information overload. Add to that the incomprehensible nature of the events, and you get one balmy and chaotic mess. In the pilot alone, expect to ask, “But why…?” at least 10 times. It’s so baffling at the offset that it requires faith that has not yet been earned to stick with the show.
Gently’s faith in the interconnectedness and order of all things is in fact what is required to watch the show: the conviction that despite a rocky start, smoothness will come; that even though Dirk is irritating, a loveable side exists; and that all of these wackadoo disparate elements will come together to create a coherent if no less bizarre solution to a murder case involving a cat and what looks to be shark bites in a hotel room. Whether the multiple puzzle pieces clicking together will be satisfying or not remains to be seen, but at the very least it should be less stressful.
BBC America’s “Dirk Gently” isn’t Douglas Adams’ “Dirk Gently,” but that’s OK, because really nothing is. What the show brings though is off-kilter energy, which is at times exhausting, but occasionally entertaining. It’s the quieter moments though, when everyone calms down and actually talks, that offer the most promise (along with the odd cute animal appearance). “Dirk Gently” is not without its charms, but one has to cut through the noise and activity to discern them and make a connection.
“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” premieres Saturday, Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. on BBC America.