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DIRK GENTLY'S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY: S1 (2016)




Todd Brotzman




Britain has been producing top-notch science fiction since before it became an actual genre, with two of the most beloved sci-fi icons here in the U.S. being Doctor Who and comedy genius Douglas Adams. We're still waiting on a modern TV take on Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but BBC America is giving its Whovian audience another wild and complicated set of adventures to follow with an adaptation of the late author's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Make the time to follow the connections, and you'll find that Dirk Gently is unlike anything else on television. Seriously.

No simple way to sum up Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency exists, as this is the rare series that staunchly avoids overt exposition, turning viewers into just as much of a "detective" as the titular character and his sidekick. Penny Dreadful's Samuel Barnett is a wide-eyed tempest as Dirk Gently, an unextinguishable time traveler who knows he's on a mission, despite not often being aware what that mission entails. But Dirk truly believes in the interconnectedness of the universe - a theme embraced by the show's spider web of a central narrative - and this synchronicity leads him to Elijah Wood's former rock musician Todd Brotzman.

Elijah Wood's first major TV role since the final season of the similarly wonky Wilfred, the financially strapped Todd lets the actor do all the things he does incredibly well. He's at first perplexed by everything involving Dirk Gently's presence (as well as another version of himself from the future), playing up Wood as the put-upon bystander, and Todd then becomes an active factor in the central mysteries, playing up Wood as the wide-eyed enthusiast. Dirk and Todd's relationship doesn't immediately snap into place, either, and is a constant work in progress as they go deeper down the rabbit hole. And they're not alone.

For instance, there's Fiona Dourif's Bartine "Bart" Curlish, a holistic and somewhat morally intact assassin whose abilities (including being largely invincible) are linked to Dirk's, as is the way she allows life to guide her from victim to victim. Her unkempt savageness, comparable to that of Helena from fellow BBC America series Orphan Black, is perfectly contrast with that of her initial captive Ken, a tech-friendly hacker played by Mpho Koaho. On the official side of things are investigators Estevez and Zimmerfield, played by the perfectly cast Neil Brown Jr. and Richard Schiff.

Then there's Amanda Brotzman as Todd's sister Hannah, who is afflicted with a disease called Pararibulitis, in which she sees everything in the world as a physical threat; it's not a bad thing to have when you're being stalked by a group of vampiric van-riding villains who aim to take down Dirk Gently. And rounding things out is the surprise standout of the bunch, up-and-coming actress Jade Eshete as Farah Black, whose bite matches her bark as she becomes more enveloped in the mystery at hand. She's quite the firecracker, and her hair is a scene-stealer.

A trio of episodes from the eight-ep season were available to screen for review, and by the end, it felt as if we're still just scratching the surface of the multi-threaded plot, which involves a missing girl with animalistic tendencies, a blisteringly brutal murder, a cabal of deadpan villains with boring pseudonyms, a lottery ticket and, among many other tangents, a mysterious colonel played by TV vet Miguel Sandoval who serves as the link between Dirk Gently and a group of other human aberrations with differing qualities. But the somewhat bloated story shouldn't cause worry, as much of it is a mechanism through which we get to know the central characters better.

In the works for a while now, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency was developed for TV by famed Hollywood offspring Max Landis, perhaps best known for writing Chronicle and perhaps worst known for his various pop culture rants. The transition is a mostly smooth one, thankfully, as the style and tone purposefully scale down the aspects of Douglas Adams' comedy that are unique to the written word, and the show doesn't attempt do directly adapt the two novels. Instead, Dirk Gently wisely adheres to the author's adoration of all things odd and idiosyncratic, making the show feel as fun and whimsical as a televised pop-up book, albeit a vastly detailed one with random acts of gritty violence.

As it goes with all things science fiction and comedy and TV and cats and rock music and everything in between, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is not going to please everyone. It isn't a non-stop laugh riot and the tonal shifts can be unsettling, though not once you get used to how the show works. And as hinted at before, its seemingly meandering storyline challenges modern attention spans, but viewers will soon turn into holistic detectives themselves as it's discovered just how much everything really is connected here. Plus, you'll probably know in the first 15 minutes whether or not you're invested.

It is always a sad realization that we'll never get another brand new Douglas Adams novel on book shelves. But there is more than enough of his ever-winking spirit, if not his love for making up language, in BBC America's fantastically absurd and exciting new take on Dirk Gently. Put down your phones and pay attention.


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Despite the perpetually stuck sofas and the alien ghosts and time traveling, Douglas Adams' delightfully nutty book Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency somehow completely hangs together. For all its weird digressions and laundry list of characters it was clear there was a method to the madness, and with Adams we were always in safe hands. There was never the sense that either Dirk Gently or the follow-up, The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul was too scattershot and ultimately, Adams more or less pulled his various narrative strands together. Could the latest attempt to adapt the story for TV pull off the same thing?

Aside from transplanting Dirk's Cambridge-based 80s adventures to a modern Seattle setting and excising characters like Professor Chronotis, BBC America's flash new series has a bigger elephant in the room. The man behind it is controversial figure Max Landis, whose talents are actually put to good use here – Landis' penchant for sharp repartee is entirely in keeping with the source material; all he has to do is turn up the weird factor. The approach of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks is also very Landis-ish but he makes it work better here than he did in, say, tonally confused action-comedy American Ultra.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency has next to nothing in common with the books in terms of plot (stray references to past cases with a sofa and Thor don’t really count) but its connective tissue is the spirit of Dirk Gently, which is manifest here. The BBC America series' mission statement is exploring the fundamental interconnectedness of things and the subtle connection between cause and effect, which is the bedrock of Dirk Gently. The pilot episode is messy in the extreme; there’s not exactly an A-plot and a B-plot, more of an A-Z-plot, and so there's a lot to get your head around. Still, when Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency calms down after a couple of episodes it starts to develop its characters and the show builds upon its core mysteries.

When the series opens we're first introduced to Todd (played by Elijah Wood), a put-upon bellboy struggling to pay his rent and treatment for his ailing sister. Dirk swiftly crashes into his life at the same time as we're introduced to a slew of random, unrelated plots – a businessman's murder, a missing young girl, a 'holistic assassin', a group of biker gang-style anarchists, a rogue corgi - which, as is the Dirk Gently way, are all connected somehow. Thus, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency requires patience and viewers need to be willing to play the long game if they want answers or at least some idea of the relevance of certain plots. If you don't get that Dirk Gently is a tapestry of stories that all come together then you’re more or less missing the point of the series.

As for Dirk himself, Samuel Barnett is good value even if his portrayal of the detective is significantly different from Stephen Mangan and (on radio) Harry Enfield before him. He's still a well-mannered yet weird Englishman but Landis writes him and Barnett plays him as more of a hyperactive klutz. If Dirk Gently as a character originally took his cues from the Fourth Doctor then Samuel Barnett very much takes his cues from the Eleventh Doctor. As Todd, Elijah Wood is fine but his character is a foil for Dirk, a straight man to look appalled and shocked by every one of Dirk's outlandish suggestions and quirks, which, initially, doesn't leave much material for Wood to work with.

An all-in-one Netflix release will greatly benefit Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency as its various mysteries and twisty narrative frequently leave you craving answers, which the show more or less delivers down the line. The back end of season one nicely sets up its already commissioned second season and the hope is that Landis will have listened to his critics and ironed out the show's kinks when it returns next year.


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Among the landscape of the dark and ever-grim golden age of TV, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency deserves to be called nothing short of a caper. Based on the books by Douglas Adams (which I regretfully have not read) and brought to life by showrunner Max Landis, the series is a riff on the classic trope of a brilliant British detective and a reluctant sidekick solving the unsolvable.

Of course, Dirk Gently isn't your usual detective. Dirk (Samuel Barnett) doesn't believe in searching for evidence, talking to witnesses or doing any of the things detectives usually do. He believes that if the universe wants him to solve a crime, it'll bring the answers to him regardless.

While the series might bear Dirk's name, Elijah Wood's Todd is a much stronger contender for its central figure. His continued skepticism and defiance towards becoming Dirk's assistant makes for a fun contrast to the detective's simultaneous faith and complete failure to comprehend the universe.

As for the rest of the cast, the competing teams of law enforcement agents investigating Dirk providing some comic relief and Fiona Dourif's holistic assassin provides a relentlessly fun parallel to the titular detective. The cast is nicely rounded out by Jade Eshete and Mpho Koaho, who bring a surprising amount of character to their roles while Aaron Douglas goes refreshingly over the top as the series' villain.

As we said in our first impressions of the show, Dirk Gently has a lot of strange going for it. You get everything from possessed cats, post-apocalyptic gangsters and even a hint of time travel within the first episode alone. Safe to say, our initial assessment of the series as one of the strangest detective stories to ever grace the small screen remains intact.

Thankfully, as the series goes on, it invests less in its gimmicky premise and more in the relationships and mythology that underpins it. The relatively-short season length of eight episodes works well, allowing each episode to build on what's come before in substantial ways and avoid becoming mired in what is a very mucky central investigation plot line.

That said, the first season of the show isn't without its share of problems. It occasionally leans a little too heavily on Dirk's quirkiness to an obnoxious degree. However, regardless of these niggles the show still manages to stand out as refreshing - even among the onslaught of shows looking to accomplish the same. It's funny, stylish and sure to pique your curiosity regardless of whether you're familiar with the source material. It's simply too mad to miss.


 
 
 


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