This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason The show doesn't premiere until a couple of days after this post's publication; we got screeners.
Does Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency Bear Investigation?
BBC America's wacky new fantasy-mystery adaptation is here, but are all its elements fundamentally interconnected?
What Is This Thing?
Calling it a one-hour procedural about a highly unconventional private detective does not do justice to how very weird it wants to be.
When Is It On?
Saturdays at 9 PM ET on BBC America, starting October 22.
Why Was It Made Now?
The original BBC (colloquially known as the Beeb) has already produced a few Dirk Gently adaptations in its native England, both audio and televisual. This is an entirely new version created specifically for North American TV audiences. Presumably BBC America (colloquially known as the Beebus, if only by me) is keen to have another series about an eccentric investigator and his long-suffering sidekick to entertain Anglophiles during the long gaps between seasons of Sherlock and Doctor Who.
What's Its Pedigree?
Speaking of Doctor Who...back in the late 1970s, a young script editor on that show named Douglas Adams wrote a couple of serials called "City Of Death" and "Shada." Only the former was ever completed and aired, but it wasn't much longer before Adams could write his own ticket thanks to the wild multimedia success of his best known creation, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and its sequels. Adams's other, lesser known fiction series began with Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, elements of which Adams shamelessly cannibalized from both of the aforementioned Doctor Who stories. Dirk Gently returned in The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Soul, and Adams's work on a third Gently book, The Salmon Of Doubt, suffered a rude interruption in the form of Adams's death at age forty-nine. (Interruptions don't get much ruder than that.)
The new BBC America series was developed for television by Max Landis, who has earned a fair amount of geek-cult cred with his screenplays for Chronicle, American Ultra, and Victor Frankenstein. The showrunner is Robert Cooper of Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis, and Stargate Universe. The surprisingly eclectic cast includes Elijah Wood, Penny Dreadful's Samuel Barnett, Aaron Douglas of Battlestar Galactica doing a goofy voice for no reason, Hey! It's That Guy! Miguel Sandoval, Dustin Milligan, a bunch of bald guys, and Richard Schiff. Richard Schiff, everybody!
I'm a little embarrassed to have gotten this far without dispensing with the idea that this new series can even be considered an adaptation of Adams's original work. In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as Preacher, another recent cable series in which the dead-end life of a beleaguered loser is abruptly invaded by inexplicable events and bizarre, predominantly violent characters. This is a Dirk Gently who may have already completed the adventures laid out in the original books and has now crossed the pond to continue his story in the U.S. (his name-dropping of Thor, a character in The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Soul, supports this conclusion). The simplest way to put it is that the BBC America version of DG'sHDA has about as much to do with the books as CBS's Elementary has to do with the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The question is whether this updated, Americanized Dirkiverse is worth spending time in. As in the books, Dirk himself (Barnett) remains a cheerfully infuriating individual with his own unique way of interacting with the world. However, the ridiculous figure he cuts in the book has been toned down; gone are the old suit, red hat, and dad-bod, replaced by a handsome lad in a necktie and a leather racing jacket that's one French's logo shy of making him look like a mustard sales rep. Seemingly incapable of expressing a normal reaction, he comes across most of the time like an overcaffeinated fangirl of pretty much everything around him.
But he shares his literary forebear's unorthodox approach to investigation. Rather than following forensics, psychology, or even clues, he follows connections. Of course, as a self-styled "holistic detective," his philosophy relies on "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things." The challenge for himself -- and those around him -- is that even if everything really is fundamentally interconnected, his methods for following those connections often seem entirely random. This leaves him in a position to come off somewhere between "savant with a preternatural understanding of causality" and "idiot," and leads to results that often drop him somewhere in the middle, i.e. "lucky idiot." Unlike the book version, however, this Dirk's manic façade contains a few cracks that reveal a longing for some fundamental interconnectedness with human beings. And his shadowy origin story threatens to end up overexplained in this season: it involves an army colonel, his gung-ho but spectacularly stupid sergeant, and probably Bart Curlish, Dirk's opposite number who describes herself as a "holistic assassin" and kills everyone she meets -- almost.
All this aside, Dirk Gently isn't really the central character; that honor belongs to Todd Brotzman, a guy who can barely handle everything life is already throwing at him before it starts throwing even more. Elijah Wood is quite believable in this role because, you know, Elijah Wood. Scraggly, broke, constantly worried about his neurologically-afflicted sister, and obliged to wear a laughably cinematic bellhop's uniform at work, his life is already on the brink of becoming a Kafka-esque nightmare even before he discovers a crime scene whose brutality is matched only by its surrealism ("Bite marks on the ceiling," Schiff's police detective keeps repeating incredulously). Dirk Gently bursting into Todd's life, almost literally, at about the same time sends his already-spinning world into an uncontrollable spiral. Before long he's penniless, homeless, a multiple-murder suspect, and possibly worse. Can he ever catch a break? Well, if Dirk is right about the universe, and about Todd, that's probably inevitable.
I was expecting something a lot more witty, which probably isn't fair. Douglas Adams set the bar for wittiness pretty high. If there's a higher bar, it's in space, and Whoopi Goldberg is serving the drinks, is how high that bar is. But so far the best gag is that the quartet of dangerously dedicated Mad Max cosplayers call themselves the Rowdy 3, which is not as good a gag as the show seems to think it is. Most of the other laughs, such as they are, seem to arise from unlikely confluences of events and moments of over-the-top violence. Which, to be fair, worked for Preacher. If you dug that not-entirely-faithful small-screen adaptation, and felt like all it needed to be perfect was some Richard Schiff, you'll probably appreciate this one too. If not, check out the Douglas Adams books. In fact, check those out either way. If they appeal to your absurdist streak, maybe this show is for you. But it if it's not, I'm sure the universe will understand.