Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is Convoluted and Ridiculous (In a Good Way)

The tone of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is very different from a typical Douglas Adams adaptation. Max Landis does a good job of making it different in a good way though.

Douglas Adams’s legacy rests far beyond the literally universal reaches of the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, stretching into the wildlife activist plains of “Last Chance to See” and a private detective’s office at London’s Peckender Street with “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”. Dirk Gently first became a BBC Four TV Show in 2010 when it was created by Howard Overman with the title character played by Stephen Mangan. Recently, however, BBC America remade the Dirk Gently paradigm, giving worldwide distribution rights to Netflix. The show is now based in Seattle (shot in Vancouver) and a lot of the characters have been changed.

The acting is as random as the show itself

In the new Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Samuel Barnett plays the title character with Elijah Wood playing a newly named sidekick, Todd, because Richard MacDuff from the books possibly sounded too Shakespeare-y for the quirky hipster vibe they tried to achieve. Elijah does a great job playing Todd, however, as his character is a bit like Frodo; has no clue what’s going on but in the end he wants to do the right thing.

elijah and dirk, dirk gentlys holistic detective agency 2016
Elijah Wood not playing Frodo, with Samuel Barnett playing Dirk Gently

This is juxtaposed with Dirk, who is now apparently literally The Doctor from Doctor Who. The manic pixie British boy archetype is too far removed from what the original Dirk Gently was, in both the books and the previous (unrelated) TV series, to make it comfortable. It doesn’t help that Samuel Barnett’s interpretation of the token BBC fangirl guy takes a bit of getting used to before giving him a chance. He’s actually quite annoying in the first episode – the moment he pops through the window you’re almost wanting to change the figurative channel, and by the end of the first episode, you’re bound to want to swallow a cyanide pill. I’m not railing against the actor, just the character that Dirk Gently is written as. There are some awkward performances from some of the actors; the characters of Farah, Amanda and the guy who keeps shooting people for no reason (you’ll see) feel like they could use some polish.

Dirk Gently is fundamentally different than from the books

It doesn’t seem very Douglas Adams to write a story with an intense, sanguine glimpse into reality – no one got beaten to death with a guitar in the books and I don’t remember any high level government conspiracies. In fact, the lack of bureaucratic efficacy was one of the centrepieces of his work. Characters wouldn’t suddenly get whacked off in his world like they do in the show, and despite the ridiculous, comedic premise of the entire thing, the show conveys a sunless, stygian atmosphere. That could just be Seattle though.

todd and dirk, dirk gentlys holistic detective agency 2016
You’ll hate them both by the end, but you’ll not want to let go.

Adams’s work always revolved around the quirks and unique intricacies of the universe, and this show has managed to capture that in a different, non Douglas Adams sort of way. The details are entirely different, and so is the style, but the core essence of Dirk Gently, which is that everything is connected and the universe is just weird as fuck, remains at the centre of the writing.

It all makes sense in the end

If you do start watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the first episode or two will be a barrage of questions. You’ll be asking yourself and everyone around what’s going on, and even the characters don’t seem to have a clue. There are atleast 7 groups of individuals, some seemingly part of the plot for no apparent reason. By the 8th and final episode of the season, “Two Sane Guys Doing Normal Things”, everything weaves together into one neatly woven tea towel of plots. From time travel to metaphysical interactions, from magic lightbulbs to rogue government contractors, Dirk Gently has it all. If you come in expecting scenes out of the books, you’re going to be disappointed – Max Landis’s adaptation isn’t a straightforward one. It is random, it is funny, and it is self-prophesying, just not in a Douglas Adams way. It’s more Landis’s voice than Adams’s, but it’s done well, which means it actually isn’t a bad thing.

farah and dirk gently, dirk gentlys holistic detective agency 2016
Dirk and Farah meet a man

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency explores one mystery in its 8 episodes, unlike Stephen Mangan’s Dirk Gently, which had a different premise every episode. I think this format owes well to what the show tries to accomplish. With a reckless abandon for conformity and conventionality, the characters seem confused yet crisp. Everyone knows their purpose intrinsically, even though they have no clue what’s going on. Despite not capturing the original tone of the books, Max Landis manages to capture this very important facet, the fact that the universe is weird and funny and really quite profound if you want to get philosophical about it. There is an otherworldly aura to the story without the direct involvement of aliens who want to build intergalactic bypasses or something.

stephen mangan dirk gently 2010
Stephen Mangan’s BBC Four Dirk Gently, 2010

In our opinion, the new Dirk Gently isn’t supposed to be an adaptation of the books. It’s supposed to be a prequel. There’s a line where Dirk mentions in the first episode about his run-in with Thor and his case about a sofa. The meeting of Dirk and Todd for the first time gives us a glimpse into what the dynamic would have been like when they first met.

So, should you watch it?

You should watch Dirk Gently if you’re even tangentially into quirky, weird or otherwise suspenseful comedy. It’s not as deep as the books and has a broader, more universal appeal. Which doesn’t mean it’s toned down to a soggy slush of dribble, but rather brings the themes of the originals to life using the TV platform. If you can’t stand some Doctor Who-esque archetypes or soppy romance and want a Dirk Gently more gritty and with stronger ties to the books, watch the 2010 Dirk Gently with Stephen Mangan.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is available on BBC America, and the AMC app in the United States. Everywhere else, it’s available to stream on Netflix.

Some tips before watching Netflix’s Dirk Gently:

  1. The first episode is really weak. If you get through it, though, you’re in for a treat. The best episode is the last one where the culmination of all the different plots come into play.
  2. Don’t expect it to be a direct adaptation of the books. The story is entirely different, characters have been changed, and the timeline is off. It could be a prequel, though.
  3. The tone is very different from a typical Douglas Adams adaptation. Max Landis does a good job of making it different in a good way though.

Written by Upamanyu Acharya

I founded Fynestuff. I play games, write tech articles and look towards putting Buzzfeed out of business someday. Let's talk about crypto: upamanyu@fynestuff.com

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