Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has all the makings of a new cult favorite: It’s crammed with weird ideas, gore, crazy set pieces and a few charming moments. But you probably won’t be able to enjoy it unless you stop thinking of it as a Douglas Adams adaptation.
Yes, the BBC America show premiering tonight is based on a book duology by Adams, who also created the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But other than the basic concept—a “holistic detective” named Dirk who breezes around getting into weird situations and then ties all the threads together with a mixture of luck and intuition—this TV show has little in common with Adams’ work. The tone, in particular, is miles away from Adams’ absurd wit.
In fact, the thing that stands out about the new show is how American it all is. In this version, Dirk Gently is the only British person in a U.S. city that’s full of Yank archetypes: snarky cops, tattooed cultists, badass bodyguards, creepy shut-ins, serial killers and stoners. Writer Max Landis (who wrote all eight episodes) has used Adams’ basic idea as a jumping-off point for something that feels more like it belongs in the same universe as John Dies at the End. If you don’t like one gonzo storyline about creepy kidnappers, indoor shark attacks or bizarre diseases, just wait a minute, and the show will be about something completely different. (Just as Adams’ books throw a slew of off-kilter ideas at the reader, so does Landis cram a billion subplots into every episode.)
This wild spree mostly works on its own terms—as long as you don’t ever try to compare it to the work of the master. In at least the first few episodes of the series, there’s nothing as delightfully perverse as the the Electric Monk from the first Dirk Gently novel, a character who will save you the trouble of having to believe something by believing it for you. Adams’ creations often illuminate something of the weirdness and futility of humanity’s attempts to make sense of the universe. Those clever storylines about Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Norse mythology, though, are nowhere to be found in the BBC America version—instead, there are rockstars, bikers, and other standard TV archetypes.
This is actually the second Dirk Gently TV series in the past five years—the first, which had a minuscule fraction of the budget of this one, aired on a minor UK channel and was written by Misfits creator Howard Overman and a couple of Doctor Who writers. Where this new version throws a million dazzling science-fiction conceits at the viewer, the 2012 Dirk Gently show was more of a weird detective show—like the BBC’s Sherlock, if Sherlock was a blundering sociopath.
In fact, when watching both Dirk Gently shows, the comparison that comes most often to mind is Doctor Who. Adams pilfered elements from two of his Who scripts to write the first Dirk novel, and the eccentric character of Dirk Gently occupies more or less the Doctor’s role in the story. So it’s probably natural that anyone who adapts these books for television winds up treating it, somewhat, as a chance to make their own off-label version of Doctor Who—and go to places the real Who would never dare.
In the 2012 series, Stephen Mangan played Dirk Gently very much as a riff on Tom Baker’s bohemian, overbearing version of the time-traveling Doctor. (Complete with messy curls and nonsense jokes.) But the new Dirk Gently, played by Samuel Barnett, feels like a spot-on tribute to the younger version played more recently by Matt Smith. He’s pouty, impetuous, flirty, and frequently bewildered by ordinary people.
And if “Doctor Who, but in America with over-the-top violence and pulpy weirdness” sounds like your jam, then you’ll probably adore the newer incarnation of Dirk Gently. The show relishes its grindhouse-y mayhem and B-movie zaniness, and the joy that it finds in its endless setpieces and inventions is frequently infectious.
At the same time, this is a show where (in the first few episodes at least) all of the women and people of color seem to be victims—except for one female character, who’s a deranged serial killer. It’s entirely possible that these characters will evolve over the rest of the season, and there are already hints of this in the third episode—but you should go into the first episode knowing this is a motif, at least at first.
On the plus side, the cast is bloody fantastic. Elijah Wood, playing Dirk’s sidekick Todd, has never used his ginormous blue eyes to better effect. Fiona Dourif, as the aforementioned serial killer, is magnetic. The rest of the cast is pretty great as well, and is full of MVPs; Richard Schiff, Miguel Sandoval and Aaron Douglas all appear. The more bizarre the story becomes, the more insanely watchable the cast gets.
So my advice is: Try to forget about Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books, because the comparison does this new show no favors. If you think of the show as a crazy ride that smelts noir, pulp and comic-book elements into a high-spirited package (with a little bit of Whovian homage at its center), then you just may be ready to get some face tattoos and join Dirk Gently’s cult following.