Dirk Gently: A Less Than Perfect Adaptation

Dirk Gently Poster

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency Series Premiere Plot Summary:

When Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood) finds himself involved in a highly unusual murder, he is unwillingly recruited as the new assistant of “holistic detective” Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett).

Douglas Adams is one of the more famous writers of the past few decades, so it’s never too surprising to see one of his works get adapted. Still, it’s interesting to see it happen to his lesser known Dirk Gently novels rather than his more famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, this time done by Max Landis of Chronicle (and a following string of less well-regarded films, to put it kindly) fame. The Dirk Gently novels follow the eponymous “holistic detective” as he solves cases by essentially doing whatever he wants and assuming it will all end up being relevant (which, since it’s an Adams novel, always ends up being true). They’re engaging if not always fully coherent reads, and a fairly substantial challenge to adapt. So how does the show manage? In short: intriguing but overstuffed and not always faithful.

Photo Credit: BBC America
Photo Credit: BBC America

For anyone confused by the title, multiple characters helpfully explain exactly what is meant by a “holistic” approach within the show: a belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, that literally anything you do is in some way tied to what you hope to accomplish. This philosophy is written into the very DNA of the show. A large part of the premiere’s draw is seeing how the many disparate elements presented over the course of the hour could possibly end up being all connected, let alone how they could be explained separately. It’s a unique approach to cultivating an air of mystery, and one that’s fairly hard to judge before seeing how it all ends up playing out. For now though, it’s certainly intriguing, and that sort of hook is crucial at the beginning stages of a plot.

That being said, this holistic approach to making a show has its drawbacks. The sheer amount of ideas being presented in this episode (a bizarre penthouse murder seemingly committed by an animal, a deranged “holistic assassin” after Dirk, and a gang of punks that steal . . . something from Dirk, to name just three of the countless plot threads that appear) can be overwhelming. To a certain degree that is kind of the point, but at the same time it makes it difficult to get a handle on what is happening. What’s worse, this intense focus on loads and loads of plot leaves little time to really get to know our main characters. We get a good sense of Todd’s apathy and hopelessness, and his relationship with his sick sister provides a certain amount of depth, but it’s still hard to get a good read on him by episode’s end. And Dirk, with his manic energy and constant rambling, is so far more of a plot device than a character, one who pushes Todd to take charge of his life but exhibits little depth of his own.

Photo Credit: BBC America
Photo Credit: BBC America

What’s more, much of Adams’ trademark wit has been lost in the translation from page to screen. Of course, little of what occurs bears much resemblance to anything from Adams’ two novels other than a couple fleeting references. But in the idiosyncratic nature of its world and the liberal use of deliberately contrived coincidences, an effort to maintain the spirit of its source has clearly been made. And in those aspects it’s certainly successful. Yet the show is sorely lacking in the rambling digressions and pointed examinations of everyday absurdities that is so characteristic of Adams’ writing. The result is a show that, while entertaining and intriguing and often clever, is not always particularly funny, and that simply feels wrong for an Adams adaptation.

Still, despite these reservations, I cannot help but wonder what will happen next. For all its flaws, the show does an excellent job of building interest in how the many different pieces will end up fitting together. Perhaps by the end those answers will be unsatisfying, but the only way to find out is to keep watching, and the show definitely makes you want to do that. In that regard, it’s hard not to call it at least a partial success.


Dirk Gently Airs Saturdays at 9 PM on BBC America

Chris Diggins is a staff writer and incorrigible layabout for The Pop Break. He usually reviews TV and movies, although he sometimes writes ludicrously long pieces of critical analysis and badgers the editors to publish it. He cannot be stopped.