The essential premise behind Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is that “It’s all connected.” There’s humor in that idea, though, the majority of what’s funny about it is the futility with which people search for order in a universe ruled by randomness and chaos. And so, it’s not too surprising, then, that the series walks a fine line between proving its premise correct and getting lost in the chaos of it all. It is the kind of line that can make for a unique viewing experience, though one that can feel diffuse at times.
A new adaptation of the Dirk Gently novels written by Douglas Adams, this series hails from BBC America, and is created by Chronicle writer and enduring revisionist pitch-enthusiast Max Landis, who, along with writing, also serves as executive producer on the show. And although there is a great deal of explaining to take care of as far as the series’ premise is concerned, the premiere, ‘Horizons,’ wastes no time in getting into the nitty-gritty of its two primary characters, the titular Dirk Gently, portrayed with a sunny charm by Samuel Barnett, who fans of Penny Dreadful will recognize as Renfield on that show’s third and final season, and, of course, Elijah Wood. Wood plays Todd, a sort of proxy for the audience in the sense that his association with the titular private detective unfolds at approximately the same time as those watching, making him the lens through which much of the show’s worldview is filtered.
That certainly aids the premiere as it quickly becomes clear there is a startling amount of ground to cover and with a character like Dirk at the center of it, the series runs the risk of becoming unmoored from any semblance of a foundation. In a sense, the show’s fixation on the connectivity of everything in the universe is somewhat undone by its occasional inability to remain connected to a single idea for too long. There’s a sense of urgency in the series’ first outing that it addresses by moving too quickly between its own defining characteristics in an attempt to demonstrate the ways in which it has a grasp on so many different genres. The effect, while entertaining, thanks to the terrific performances from Wood and Barnett, also leaves the series feeling a little indistinct – as though it could be a little of everything instead of a really great example of one thing in particular.
To a certain extent, this actually seems to be the goal of the series, as the end of the premiere treats viewers to a familiar “What you can expect” segment featuring glimpses at the season’s remaining episodes and a voiceover by Dirk himself. The list is long, as Dirk has to run through the mystery of the kidnapped girl, the man who hired Dirk to investigate his murder long before it happened, the Rowdy 3 and what they stole from Dirk, the woman handcuffed to the bed, the holistic assassin, the government assassins, Todd’s association with the whole thing, and, of course, the little black kitten. There’s more but you get the point: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has an inordinate amount going on and, in the premiere anyway, it’s unclear whether or not the inordinately chaotic arrangement of it all is a bug or a feature.
The series certainly would like viewers to think of it as the latter. This much seems to be confirmed by the behind-the-scenes interviews with Landis, Wood, and especially Barnett, who suggests asking “What is going on?” is the response the premiere was hoping to elicit. Whether or not that makes for good viewing is another question altogether. With just eight episodes to the season, one has to wonder whether or not BBC America’s traditional weekly installment plan is going to work in this show’s favor, or if it might have been better suited for an all-at-once streaming format from Netflix or Amazon.
There’s something undoubtedly appealing about a show with presumably an overarching narrative that also functions as a giant puzzle box. Look no further than the many conversations about HBO’s new Westworld for confirmation on that. But there is a distinct difference in a show like Westworld that seems to have several puzzles and mysteries swirling around its slowly building narrative and a show like Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency that appears to be view itself as the puzzle. What’s more, because of how elements are dispersed in the first hour in a randomly, chaotic fashion, there’s little way for anyone watching to know what exactly (or if anything) the show is attempting to construct with its narrative. Promising the connection shared by all things will soon be revealed is enticing from a marketing standpoint, but the premiere struggles at times to convince the revelation will resonate with anyone beyond Landis.
‘Horizons’ presents a very complicated world and narrative arrangement that is admirable in its construction and made watchable through the terrific performances of Wood and Barnett, but the construction confuses complicated with complex. There are so many plates spinning at once and the series’ efforts to leap in and out of genres at will make the wide breadth of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency interests feel mostly indistinct. Thankfully, the commitment is nominal; at eight hours (on Saturday no less) the series makes a compelling case for continued viewing by virtue of its brevity. This also presents a unique challenge in that one wonders whether eight episodes will be enough for the series to convincingly demonstrate the way in which everything is connected. It seems viewers have seven more hours to decide.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency continues next Saturday with ‘Lost & Found’ @9pm on BBC America.
Photos: BBC America