Douglas Adams has proven to be a notoriously difficult author to adapt to any form of video, but Dirk Gently has somehow managed to lend itself well to service as inspiration, if not actually adaptation.
Dirk Gently was already a show starring Stephen Mangan, and it was brilliant, and now BBC America brings you Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Both shows can only legitimately claim to be “inspired by” by the Douglas Adams work, and that’s probably the only way to get something that works. Adams’ writing is too specific to the medium, and largely far too “internal” to adapt in a direct way.
In the latest show, that means that there is actually little in common with the book series in terms of the actual plot, though there is still a Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett – Penny Dreadful), who is still a “holistic” detective, and there is still a poor schlub who finds himself at the heart of a crazy investigation. Todd (Elijah Wood), said schlub, works in a hotel, and has a crazy landlord, but generally leads a pretty boring life. One day, his crazy landlord decides to beat the hell out of his car, and once he makes it to work, he discovers a brutal, and bizarre crime scene.
Just when things can’t get weirder, Dirk Gently shows up to tell Todd that strange things are afoot, and that he’s a holistic detective, which seems to mean that Todd has stepped in it. A holistic detective, by the way, apparently being someone who solves crimes/cases simply by being astoundingly in tune with the interconnectedness of all things.
Now, Todd has to stay clear of the police, who have a lot of questions for him, pay for his sister’s expensive medication, despite having absolutely no money, and keep from getting killed merely by proximity to Gently, who doesn’t even know that a holistic assassin is after him.
While the show obviously doesn’t aim for a direct telling of Douglas Adams, it is so in line with the spirit and ability of his series that it becomes rather frightening. It isn’t just the oddball levity of a situation that is nonsensical, or the effort at charm and borderline disinterest of our hero, but the entire tone and the most subtle of moments.
There’s a reason that filming things by Adams has something like “humorously reminiscent” as the top bar, and that is because so much of it can’t be filmed, because it doesn’t exist in the world. Not in the unimportant “there’s no spaceship to film on,” sense that is easy to overcome, but because things like “Zaphod Beeblebrox-y” isn’t an actual quality that you can hope to have an actor pretend to have.
Nevertheless, Barnett is surprising in the role of Gently, but more importantly, Wood embodies the entire series of novels and its entire, hysterical mood of being adrift on senseless currents. The two together remind of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in Jeeves & Wooster. That’s a tricky comparison, and it isn’t that I mean to say they are as good, in some objective sense, but they similar tackle impossible characters, and it becomes as though the author had them in mind. It is also at least a similar style of British buffoonery at play.
All that said, the show reels you in like Adams at his best, almost daring you to turn away, and there’s something of a sideways shot at the air of superiority that has become too common in American “plot-twisty” efforts.
The tangential stories that influence, or try to influence, events aren’t quite given the attention they deserve through the first episode, but there are a lot of balls in the air here, and a little expediency is forgivable.
Sadly, like all of Adams’ works, and therefore those inspired by them, there’s no real way to relay the meat of the matter. When you ask someone if they’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and they say, “No, what’s it about?” you’re rather stuck. You can’t even compare it to other things, and you can’t compare the show either.
It is the best thing on television right now though, or you’ll absolutely hate it, which is what you have to say when you recommend the books as well… or something.