In this glut of grim science fiction, whether it's Black Mirror's technodystopias, Orphan Black's wars for genetic independence, or Mr. Robot's disquisitions on reality and oligarchy and mental health — BBC America's adaptation of author Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency books has sprung on the scene as a doofily absurd invitation not to take everything quite so seriously. As Westworld sermonizes on the high moral cost of entertainment, and Marvel's Jessica Jones and Luke Cage explore systemic abuse and our own complicity, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency inhales and says hey, maybe we're all just pawns in some giant cosmic scheme of which we're unaware and for which we are — at best — incidental. It's Men in Black to TV's current epidemic of Interstellars.
That's a welcome change if you're sagging from the moral weight of this election season and resenting everyone else for not doing their bit (or for doing bits that don't need doing). Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency pokes fun at the self-important delusion that your bit matters. It suggests that you're exactly where you need to be, doing exactly what needs to be done, for whatever is supposed to happen next — which may or may not work out well for you, but you are not the point.
That is to say, it is a semi-successful show that's off to a wobbly start and has no business calling itself an adaptation. Which, despite its shortcomings, offered this viewer a sense of massive relief she didn't know she needed.
Max Landis' adaptation of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is a far cry from the Douglas Adams novel from which it derives its name. The sci-fi mystery novel famously (and belatedly) introduces the protagonist's college pal Dirk Gently, now a portly eccentric with multiple aliases who calls himself a "holistic detective." His method is part quantum theory, part hucksterism, part logic. The surprise is that it works. It generates peculiar coincidences and results. The novel is a delightful sendup of the mystery novel's primary function — namely, to confront the reader with an insoluble problem and restore her faith in logic and some kind of universal order by the end. It features some intriguingly fusty old Cambridge rooms, a sofa inexplicably trapped in a stairway, a robot whose sole function is to believe in things, errant horses, a fairly intensive reading of the works of Samuel Coleridge, dodos, magic tricks, and a debate on the merits of Buxtehude.
None of these pleasantly fiddly elements are present in the TV adaptation. The show ostensibly takes place after Adams' two Dirk Gently novels (which are alluded to in passing). We start with Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood), a troubled bellhop struggling to support his ailing sister Amanda (Hannah Banks), who suffers from a genetic disease called pararibulitis that causes her painful hallucinations. Todd wanders into the show's first crime scene, sees some stuff he wasn't meant to, and spends the first episode being stalked by a corgi and by Dirk Gently himself (played by Samuel Barnett).
It's hard to imagine a greater contrast between book Dirk and TV Dirk. The latter is young and spry and well-groomed. He's trim. His clothes fit very well. Whereas Adams' detective is a slow-moving, pizza-loving know-it-all (the patient kind — he spends a fair amount of time waiting for his annoyed secretary and irascible clients to return, as he knows they will), Barnett's Dirk is slippery and bossy and impulsive, frequently incompetent, and perpetually amazed.
Nor is there a shared history in the TV show to enrich the Sherlock/Watson relationship developing between Dirk and Todd. Dirk breaks into his apartment and recruits him as his "best friend and assistant." Todd resists, and that's basically the dynamic. There are no fond college memories, no aged professors. Nothing connects our protagonists except Dirk's announcement that a connection exists. If Adams' novel was in some respects a nostalgia piece that linked literary history and music and quantum theory and computers and science fiction to an abiding hatred for the British telephone service, there is nothing in this brassy American version that can be read in the same way.
It can't have been easy to adapt Adams' work. The novels lavish multiple paragraphs not just describing a character's state of mind but also how that state of mind changes ever so slightly and how. There are sections that describe one light blinking and time passing. Some sections descend into the point of view of a horse. These things are difficult to film.
Still, Landis' efforts to adapt the source material are sometimes so counterintuitive they're worthy of Dirk Gently himself: he set the show in Seattle, turned the violence up to 11, created a knockoff of Helena in Orphan Black, and jerry-rigged an astonishingly uninteresting secret FBI plot. (If Dirk et al really turn out to be government experiments, I'm out; the CIA and the FBI should be chickenfeed compared to the whimsical, intergalactic indifference of Adams' cosmos.) The show as it came to exist has been described as a mix of Supernatural, Sherlock, and Dr. Who.
But there are currents that capture some of what the books did well. Farah Black (Jade Eshete) and Amanda are typical Adams women: lonely but determined and yes, spunky. The cops (Zimmerfield and Estevez, played by Richard Schiff and Neil Brown, Jr.) and the FBI duo (Colonel Scott Riggins and Sergeant Hugo Friedkin, played by Miguel Sandoval and Dustin Millikan) offer plenty of Adams-inspired bumbling. At least one villain is getting a marvelous back story as rock star Lux Dujour. And while the bad guys aren't human and clearly aren't good, they're susceptible to distraction and comparatively free from malice.
Then there's the fact that no one really understands what's happening. Take this exchange from the second episode between Gently and the main bad guy, which takes place on a bridge (I'd offer a spoiler warning, but I don't think there's any valuable intelligence here):
"Give me the dog or I'll kill her," says the bad guy
"Give us the her or we'll throw the dog off the bridge," says Gently.
"Why did you attack us?"
"We didn't. How do you know who we are?"
"We don't. Where's the kitten?"
"What kitten? Who's that woman?"
"You don't know her?"
"Why did you burn my house down?"
"I burned your house down?"
"Where's Lydia?" says Todd.
"She's not here. Bring me the dog!" says the bad guy.
"Why do you want it?" says Gently.
"We don't know!"
This is the kind of thing that will keep me coming back to this show: the pleasure of two sides where no one knows what's going on or even why they want things to happen. Causal thinking isn't relevant here; there are no secret plots to carefully detect, no clever bait-and-switches or substitutions or Easter eggs or codes to crack. There are shark bites on the ceiling. Everyone's confused, and everyone's trying to figure it out, but no one thing matters all that much. The show has plenty of little exchanges about fate and agency: "Just because you know you're playing a game doesn't mean you don't choose your moves," Gently says. But he's just a leaf in the wind, too, and he trusts that. And so, for a little while, can we.