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.