TV Review: ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’

Dirk Gently renewed season 2
Courtesy BBC America

The title character in “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” frequently discusses how one entity or event can parallel another, so it’s fitting that Dirk and the new show starring him strongly resemble each other. If only that were a compliment. 

“Dirk Gently” is based on novels by Douglas Adams, the beloved British author who wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Among other accomplishments, Adams’ career, which ended much too soon, proved that it’s actually quite difficult to pull off comic genre writing. Many have attempted it, few have succeeded. Adams was the rare writer who made silliness and surreal tangents essential to his fiction; these qualities were key aspects of his large-hearted and pleasingly goofy and imaginative worldview. Compassion for the weirdos of the universe is often what drove his writing, not necessarily a fascination with outer space, detectives or time travel. And even for some Adams fans, the “Dirk Gently” tales were just a little too digressive and diffuse to really work.

In any event, much of the joy of Adams’ tart yet shaggy books emanates from their dryly observant tone, and an inability to translate the more delicate nuances of that wry approach is part of the reason a number of adaptations have run into difficulties over the years. (It’s a shame that the 1981 “Hitchhiker’s” TV show isn’t streaming in the U.S. right now, because that U.K. series ably captured the absurd whimsy and perceptive humanity of Adams’ most famous novel.) With Adams’ work, you either hit a small, worthwhile and very specific target, or you miss completely, and most adaptations do the latter. 

This new eight-episode series runs into all of those problems and creates a few more for itself along the way. All in all, it’s difficult to tell what the goals of this version of “Dirk Gently” are, given how manic, disorganized and incoherent it is.

As a character, Dirk Gently is not unlike the Doctor in “Doctor Who”: He arrives in people’s lives, chattering a mile a minute, and throws just about everything into an uproar. The key difference is, Dirk has a talent for plunging people into dangerous situations, while the Doctor has a knack for ingeniously getting them out of whatever jam they’re in. Dirk is reactive, especially in the first two installments of this program, which makes the entire narrative wobbly and indistinct from the start. 

What this version of Dirk does best is annoy people: He spews an almost endless babble of nonsense about his career as an unconventional investigator of disjointed mysteries while various odd or violent things happen in his general vicinity. Both he and his fellow protagonist, Todd (Elijah Wood), are often passive victims of a host of weird and unexplained events. They are as befuddled and confused as the viewer is likely to be, and there’s almost no reward for sitting through various disjointed twists and turns. The humor is rarely funny, many scenes boast the unearned self-satisfaction of contrived student films, and so much is usually going on that the big reveals rarely land with any force. 

Given that very little of the narrative coheres and few characters make lasting impressions, it all becomes exhausting very quickly. There are murders and disappearances that are investigated, sort of, but if those events are mere MacGuffins designed to get viewers to invest in the characters or their relationships, nothing about the way this frenetic, slapdash TV show is put together helps it accomplish those tasks.

Todd comes across Dirk at a bad time in his life, when his finances and personal life are both in perilous states, and though Wood is a master of playing put-upon men, it’s a shame that he gets very little else to do. As Dirk, Samuel Barnett is full of crackling energy, but the show constructed around these actors is full of overwrought performances and failed attempts to sustain a tone of irreverent, sprightly bemusement. There’s a subplot about an assassin that is deadly boring, a few attempts to parody police procedurals, and jarring scenes of rote violence that don’t quite fit in with most of the other events that transpire. There’s also a subplot about Todd’s sister, who has a rare medical condition, and a few other threads that add to the general confusion of the whole affair.

In Dirk’s view, all of these random events entering his orbit (or Todd’s life) are evidence of the universe’s “interconnectedness”; he frequently talks about the hidden links among seemingly random events and coincidences that actually have nothing to do with chance. But not enough human connections and storylines worth following surface in this pell-mell, genre-flavored serial.  

All in all, “Dirk Gently” tries to be about half a dozen shows at once, and none of them rise to the level of adequate.

TV Review: 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency'

Drama; 8 episodes (2 reviewed); BBC America, Sat. Oct. 22, 9 p.m. 60 min.

Crew

Executive producers, Max Landis, Robert Cooper, Dean Parisot, Arvind Ethan David, Zainir Aminullah, Ted Adams, David Ozer, David Alpert, Rick Jacobs.

Cast

Elijah Wood, Samuel Barnett, Hannah Marks, Jade Eshete, Mpho Koaho, Fiona Dourif, Michael Eklund, Osric Chau, Viv Leacock, Zak Santiago, Richard Schiff, Neil Brown Jr., Aaron Douglas, Miguel Sandoval, Dustin Milligan

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  1. thenasanieru says:

    I don’t even think you watched it. Either that or you fail at being human.

  2. Daisy says:

    I completely disagree with this critic. The skittishness of the show is meant to be, I absolutely love it and I can’t wait for Series 2.

  3. graham says:

    pathetic, unrecognisable!

  4. It’s supposed to be confusing and disjointed at first. And Dirk is supposed to be annoying and obnoxious. As the series goes on it addresses those things directly as key parts of the storyline and character development.

  5. “Many scenes boast the unearned self-satisfaction of contrived student films.” Funny, I was just thinking that this “review” boasts the unearned self-satisfaction of a journalism major who accidentally wound up as a “Chief TV Critic.”

    I’m not a reviewer, unfortunately. If I was, I would simply write my own review. But a review that says “This show is awesome, but you just kinda need to watch it to understand why!” wouldn’t persuade much of anyone. So the best I can do is respond to reviews like this, and, unfortunately, the only way to respond to this review is to make it clear that the writer actually didn’t understand what she was watching.

    Let me start by giving some context: I’m a big fan of sci-fi and comedy. Though I loved “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy,” I had never heard of “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” until about four days ago, when I was introduced to the BBC adaptation just after the final episode of the season aired. In that time, I’ve marathoned the 8-episode run, which I enjoyed immensely. Because I had heard so little of the show before watching it, I decided to look up reviews afterwards, to see how others had received it. I was blown away by the luke-warmth of its reception. After doing some digging, I realized that it wasn’t that the reception wasn’t lukewarm, but rather, extremely polarized. I happen to fall at one end of the pole while the writer of this review fell at the other. And, while I while happily admit that there are people for whom this show was not written, I hate to see those people go out and tell the world that it is objectively bad. To quote the dude, “that’s, like, your opinion, man,” and I do get the distinct impression that those people fall in the minority.

    This show was designed to be binge-watched. The overarching story, while told in mostly chronological order, is revealed to the protagonist Todd (Elijah Wood) in disjointed fragments, and only begins to come together over the course of the season. The Doctor Who parallels are easy to draw – manic British guide leading a rag-tag group of everymen through confusing, eccentric adventures. But unlike Doctor Who, “Gently” is not a “Monster of the Week” show- if you go into an episode expecting everything to be wrapped up in 45 minutes, you will be sorely disappointed.

    Given then nature of “Gently’s” storytelling, it is not surprising that after watching two episodes, the reviewer found the show to be “confusing” and “disjointed,” the subplots “boring,” and the “big reveals” and “human connections” to be lacking in force. However, her assertion that these adjectives can be used to characterize the entire show is incredibly hasty. I would suggest that she has been underwhelmed by the “big reveals” because at the two-episode mark, those reveals have barely been hinted at. The human connections are not artificially thrust upon the audience, but develop naturally among the characters. And all the while, mysteries are emerging that you can only hope will see resolution (spoilers: they do).

    Even if she had chosen to experience the entire season before writing the show off, this reviewer may have still felt that “Gently’s” serialization was its greatest sin. Not too long ago, shows that didn’t wrap-up the story by the credits were looked down upon. It was considered poor practice to use cliff-hangers or shark-jumping to keep the audience captive and keep viewership up. But in the post-Breaking Bad age of television, writers have started to realize that it’s not “cheating” to use the whole canvas to make their art. “Gently” embraces this philosophy to the extent that there is no perceivable story arc over the course of a single episode. In the spirit of its source material, “Gently” reads more like a novel, each episode a chapter.

    Now, what I can’t quite reconcile is the writer’s sense that the humor is “rarely funny.” I suppose this is where it comes down to taste, and while I would like to say that the writer has garbage taste, I know that she could say the same as me.

    I wound up on this page because, at the time of writing, this is the only negative critic review of “Gently” on Metacritic. And while that normally wouldn’t bug me, it seems to me that this show is not getting the recognition that it deserves. I’d hate to see the series canceled after one season because of writers like this spreading misinformation because they don’t understand the show and can’t separate fact from opinion.

    I’m realizing now that I’ve spent eight paragraphs blabbering about how I didn’t like someone else not liking what I liked. If this makes it past the Variety Ministry of Truth, it might wind up in the comments section for people to not read. But in the event that someone is on the fence about whether or not to give the show a shot and bothered to read through this, I guess my point is: give it a shot. If you don’t hate it, you will wind up loving it.

    • LilaFocil says:

      Thanks Zachary Eberhart! (Love your name by the way!)

      I just finished watching the show and like you I binged watched it. I was taken aback by the first episode and how it was very confusing, but it did make me want to keep watching it to be able to understand the whole plot of it, and even though I didn’t make me laugh out as much I did think it was very funny in a weird-can’t-explain-it way and I loved it!

      I’m a big fan of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and till reading this review I hadn’t realized Dirk Gently was from the same author. Now I can see the weird humor connection.

      I’m also disappointed in this review by Maureen Ryan, as it was the first one I stumbled upon when looking for reviews. But I have hope that other people will write better things and I will cross my fingers so that a second season will come along.

      And as commenter crescentmoon071: “This is a freakin’ awesome show. And a weird one. It’s fantastic and I love it.”

      • Esteban says:

        Thank you for writing a rebuttal to the author’s review. True, the series is a bit of a jumble at times, it is also highly entertaining, extremely imaginative, a blast to watch and the characters a lot of fun. My daughter referred to it as Dr. Who meets Sherlock. I would say either of those shows easily bests it, but Dirk does manage to hold its own, and is quite worth watching.

        I’m really glad I came across this show. As a fan of Douglas Adams who read the Hitchhikers series a long time ago and loved it, and seen the movie much more recently, I was intrigued when I saw his name attached to this series. It may be true that the show was not true to form – I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read the book – but my daughters and I really enjoyed watching this together and are eagerly awaiting the second season.

        I’m not sure if the author’s standards are just too high for the common man, if she just didn’t get what was really well done about the show or was using this as an outlet for misplaced anger, but I believe that there are lots of people out there who will really enjoy this show, even if it falls short of the authors lofty requirements.

  6. In all iterations of Douglas Adams’s work it undergoes a metamorphosis when the story shifts between media. The Radio 4 series, novels, television show, computer game and film of the Hitchhikers series have a central thread but adaptations to suit the media that they are in.

    Dirk Gently was created from leftovers from Doctor Who scripts and other ideas Douglas Adams had, Douglas wrote for Tom Baker so there will be some of that in Dirks DNA. The 2010 series took Dirk and ran with it and was exceptionally good if hidden away on BBC4. This takes the name Dirk Gentky and errr does something else. This is not Dirk Gently. This would be like someone making a Miss Marple where she solves murders whilst working as a Chamber Maid in a New York Hotel. A chamber maid who solves murders may be entertaining but that would not be Miss Marple. This is a mad vile mess. You may like it but it certainly isn’t Dirk Gently, it has none of Douglas’s wit and intelligence just a needless insanity that leaves you feeling deflated in a lake of disappointment.

  7. Well regardless of whats been said, I thoroughly believe that, while this show is an either an acquired taste or an immediate delight, it is not necessarily a write-off. The characters are memorable, but their stories are told in such a format that you must stick with the show for more than an episode, as backstory and character arcs come with time. What’s more, this show was and has been explicitly advertising itself as many different shows at once, and has even boasted reviews sharing that sentiment in its ads, essentially proving this review above to be written at an extremely quick pace and maybe from an extremely bias perspective. With that in mind, I also certainly do believe that each person is entitled to an opinion. It just gets a bit muddy when the places that people go to to learn about shows have the traits I described above scattered throughout the review. Troubling, to say the least. All in all, though, if you have made it through the review above and my blurb here, please take at least one thing away (even if it is from my own bias perspective):

    This is a freakin’ awesome show. And a weird one. It’s fantastic and I love it.

  8. cjk2016 says:

    Well I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Really entertaining. So screw the critics.

  9. Jon says:

    it sucks. It is NOT Dirk Gently. It’s awful. Don’t waste your time.

  10. Gus K says:

    I like it. And the actors all shine in their roles.

  11. Forty-five minutes in and people are all ready to declare the series a failure? Why does it seem that people who get paid to be critics are mostly idiots who don’t like ANYTHING unless everyone already loves it?

    How does “very little of the narrative coheres and few characters make lasting impressions”? Aside from the fact that the writers are not spelling everything out in the first episode, it ALL cohered. It just takes patience to find out what it is cohering into. No memorable characters? The writer of this article must have been too busy writing her column and not paying enough attention.

    Oh, well. 100 is, after all, the average IQ.

  12. Kate H says:

    This is the second TV series based on Dirk Gently (the BBC in the UK ran a short-lived series in 2012 following a pilot in 2010). In neither series is Gently as he’s described in the books – morbidly obese.

    (Also the 1981 TV version of ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ is based on the original radio series, not the novel that came later and ends at a different point in the narrative because Adams ran up against a deadline.)

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