Saturday, December 2, 2017

Digging Into "Dirk Gently"

I know I read "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" after finishing off Douglas Adams'
Hitchhiker" series, but I don't remember much about it. The book originated from unused story concepts that Adams prepared for "Doctor Who," so it seems fitting that a new version should be coming along now, as "Doctor Who" is enjoying its revival. However, very little of the new television series adaptation, produced by Netflix and the BBC, pinged as familiar, and the bulk of the characters appear to be original. So I'm pretty comfortable saying that the bulk of the credit for this version should go to the show's creator, Max Landis.

If you're familiar with Landis's work, many of his usual hallmarks are here: seemingly ordinary young man caught up in a big genre adventure, lots of flashy, chaotic violence, way too much exposition, and a few noticeably weak female characters. The plot revolves around Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), a self-proclaimed holistic detective, who doesn't look for clues but instead focuses on the interconnectedness of events, and allows the universe to essentially point him in the right direction. So, to solve the murder of an industrialist, Dirk first recruits Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood) as a reluctant assistant. Todd is an unemployed bellboy whose life is suddenly beset by an onslaught of calamities. Because Dirk knows there is no such thing as a coincidence, this means Todd is important. Eventually Todd's sister Amanda (Hannah Marks), the industrialist's bodyguard Farah (Jade Eshete), a holistic assassin (Fiona Dourif) and her hostage (Mpho Koaho), two police detectives, several government agents, a gang of anarchists, a dog, a kitten, and a shark all become involved, and these are just the good guys.

There's a slightly worrying sense of chaos to the first episode, where the show just keeps throwing outrageous events and ideas at wide-eyed Todd and the audience willy-nilly, with very little pause to let anything sink in. Dirk initially comes off as a manic weirdo, as though he's trying too hard to evoke the David Tennant version of the Doctor. Fortunately there were seven other episodes to flesh out the characters, sort out all the wackiness, and ensure that everything does make sense in the end. Too many of those characters tend to speak in overly verbose and rambly dialogue, and there are a few points where the good guys just decide out of the blue to be mad at each other or to do something very stupid. But on the whole, it's all very entertaining.

The cast is excellent, helping to ground the frequently ridiculous events in some kind of emotional reality. Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett are both likeable and charismatic, and play well together. My favorite characters, though, are Bart the assassin and Ken, her poor hostage. Fiona Dourif and Mpho Koaho manage to build up a sweet, if wildly improbable, relationship between the two of them. I had some trouble with more minor characters, though. Farah is one of those problematic heroines who is repeatedly told that she's a badass far more often than she's actually allowed to demonstrate that she's a badass, and prone to losing IQ points whenever the plot needs her to. Hannah Marks is great as Amanda, but the character is also constantly hampered by a convenient chronic ailment.

However, the mystery elements of this mystery show are handled very well, and I'm always a sucker for good whodunits. The explanations are imparted to the audience in neat little chunks, slowly ramping up the absurdity until the final reveals involving fantasy elements paranoid conspiracies make perfect sense. Dirk's not the only part of "Dirk Gently" that reminded me of the modern "Doctor Who." Both deal in high-concept, high energy genre hijinks, but "Dirk Gently" takes advantage of having so much more time to tell this one particular story, to do a lot of good worldbuilding and mythology spinning. Too many other shows never manage to get that right. And the result is a very fulfilling jaunt into a weird, but ultimately comprehensible universe, that I wouldn't mind visiting again.

Definitely room for improvement here, but "Dirk Gently" was a lot of fun, and I look forward to the next season.


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