BBC America's newest series, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Saturday, 9/8c), is a one-of-a-kind show following a series of apparently universe-decreed events that unfortunately is slow to form into anything resembling a cohesive story. And that's a shame, because with the success of HBO's Game of Thrones and The CW's four superhero dramas, genre TV finally seems to be having its moment in the sun.
The series is a loose adaptation of the novel of the same name written by beloved The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams. While Hitchhiker's inherent comedic silliness and hapless protagonist connect on several levels to allow the novels to endure and continue to ensnare new fans, Dirk Gently is less approachable for the average reader, with multiple points of view eventually developing into a rather complex and otherworldly story that more or less coalesces by novel's end.
Bringing the novel's frustrating fragmented structure to television — and making it work — is an incredibly difficult feat. In 2010, the BBC loosely adapted parts of the first book into a pilot starring Stephen Mangan that eventually turned into a three-episode series that aired in 2012. Critical response was positive, but the same cannot be said for this latest adaptation.
On screen, the central narrative of Dirk Gently is again purposefully confusing. The central shtick is that everything in the universe is fundamentally connected in some way and all will be revealed if we only care to stick around. In the premiere, the show's titular detective (Samuel Barnett) fumbles his way into a complicated mystery involving the missing daughter of a murdered millionaire that's somehow connected to Elijah Wood's Todd Brotzman, a former musician-turned-struggling-bellhop-turned-Dirk's-put-upon-assistant. But even as the show's twists reveal new developments and connections between previously unrelated characters, the show's pacing is simply too slow and the puzzle at its center too disjointed to convince us it's worth it to stick by it.
As the show progresses, Dirk and Todd stumble headfirst — well, for Dirk it's headfirst, for Todd it's more like he's handcuffed to Dirk and being pulled along reluctantly — into even more confusing developments involving an eyebrow-wagging detective (Richard Schiff), the CIA, a kitten, a corgi, Todd's younger sister (Hannah Marks) who suffers from a debilitating nerve disease that sometimes causes hallucinations, an army of tattooed thugs, an assassin (Fiona Dourif) who appears to have taken her physical cues and appearance from Orphan Black's Helena and the guy who played Tyrol on Battlestar Galactica (Aaron Douglas).
Dirk never feels much like a detective, which admittedly is part of the plot, and so the way he constantly blunders along and happens upon clues and secrets rather than seek them out through investigation — again, part of the plot — makes him reactive rather than proactive. And with Todd already reacting, quite amusingly usually, to the inexplicable series of events he's found himself in, Dirk Gently hasn't got much of a leader to follow.
What it does have is a lead character whose actions and reactions frequently leave viewers wondering if he's supposed to be amusing rather than off-putting, quirky and lovable rather than grating and obnoxious. Barnett does a good enough job with the material he's given, but Dirk isn't a very likable character. Although it's unlikely, there is a scenario in which that could change though. By the third episode — the last screened for critics in advance — the series has started to hint at the character's mysterious and extraordinary backstory thereby offering not only the first hint of some answers but also a glimpse into the mind of this mad man.
By default, the inherent strangeness that permeates every square inch of the ambitious Dirk Gently makes it an interesting deviation from the norm of the television landscape. So it's rather unfortunate that it's rather clumsy, with wildly changing tone, as the action unfolds. Very little about the show's first hour seems to make any sense as characters are introduced with little to no explanation. This leaves fans to have to wait for a payoff that may never come and viewers to ponder whether Dirk and his complicated world are better left on the page. Or if the story is better suited to be tackled by someone other than Max Landis, who developed it for BBC America.
All of the show's problems — the confusing set up and gradual pace, the unlikable lead — also shines a light on a familiar dilemma that programs like Dirk Gently face with startling regularity. Genre programming takes greater and more ambitious risks with its storytelling than the average drama. It asks potential fans to take a leap of faith, usually more than once. That means these shows already face a level of scrutiny upfront that mainstream series developed for broad audiences do not. Sometimes those risks do pay off. Sometimes you get Dirk Gently. But hey, at least they tried.
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency premieres Saturday, Oct. 22 at 9/8c on BBC America.