Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Confusion

Written by Matt Butler December 24, 2016

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Amidst the mundane chaos of everyday life, there’s nothing better than knowing your purpose. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is adept with this sensation. The first fifteen minutes of the show unleashes a cavalcade of disconnected subplots and wild characters. But, just before any headaches surge, enter Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett). Dirk is a detective without a clue. He’s always flying by the seat of his pants and the will of the universe, darting through a murder scene like a kid in a candy store. As soon as Dirk enters the picture, he injects this wild philosophy that everything is holistic. All these confusing, unrelated, more or less uninteresting events and characters are connected. But only by reference to the whole (holistic, after all).

Maybe you can already guess what works and what doesn’t in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (based on the Douglas Adams books of the same name). Thankfully what works is a delightful, if not dizzying, lead character. Along with a reluctant everyman, Todd (Elijah Wood) as the perfect complement. Barnett plays Dirk as the lovechild of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who (11th, if we’re being specific). And Wood’s Todd fits the role of a companion/Watson type. Again, it’s a great sign when the leads are the best part, because they’re who we spend the most time with.

“You look uncannily like Frito from Ringing of the Three Lords.”

But whenever we aren’t with Dirk and Todd, we’re rolling the dice between god knows how many other characters and subplots. There’s the two criminal investigators. The top secret government agents. The FBI. Todd’s sister Amanda (Hannah Marks) who suffers from a fictitious illness, Pararibulitis, which causes painfully realistic hallucinations. So on and so forth. But to be clear, a hodgepodge of subplots isn’t a problem, as long as the story keeps moving forward.

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There’s plenty of ways a story can push itself forward. But the two most relevant to Dirk Gently are cause/effect and tone. One of the basic rules of writing a story is to link each event with a ‘but’ or a ‘therefore’, not an ‘and then’.This tells us that each event is contributing to a bigger story. It gives us reason to trust that the story is going to take us somewhere special. With Dirk Gently, each event is so self-contained, so detached from conventional reality, that you don’t know which story it’s part of. And the tone is all over the map. One scene it’s that blend of Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes. The next it’s a straight-up CSI investigation. The next it’s an episode of Supernatural.

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The one exception is the Bart and Ken plot line (Fiona Dourif & Mpho Koaho respectively). It’s essentially the antithesis to the Dirk/Todd plot line. Dirk is a detective, Bart is an assassin. Dirk is trying to solve a murder mystery, Bart is trying to kill Dirk. Both are governed by the same holistic logic, or lack thereof. Both have a reluctant sidekick who is drawn in by the possibility of holistic meaning. They’re two sides to the same coin. Having two similar but opposing relationships helps better our understanding of the show’s main conceit. If Dirk Gently kept its attention to just these two plots – with minimal sidetracks – it would retain its narrative momentum. Everything else we’re stuck with makes the show feel like channel-surfing.

“I’m not psychic, but I am… something.”

But maybe that’s why every episode starts with a wall of screens, each displaying a different character. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency actively ignores the rules of cause/effect and tone. The consistent lack of consistency gives weight to the idea of a disconnected universe, only fully understood with all the parts intact. That’s the kind of quizzical sci-fi concept that Douglas Adams would believe in. It’s not too far from his notion of a meaningless universe in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The trend I’m noticing though with Adams’ genius: it doesn’t translate fluidly to the screen. Hitchhikers (the book) tangents into vivid detail what type of alien a Vogon is, how to properly mix a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, why the most useful object in the universe is a towel, etc. But what glues everything together is its entertainment value.

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Dirk Gently is ambitious for giving purpose to its frivolous storytelling. It’s a setup that leads to perplexing, sometimes intriguing, but often frustrating results. This could be helped if every character was as entertaining as Dirk. But only a handful come close. It’s the beautiful flaw with Adams’ mind, there’s nothing quite like it. When you bring so many minds together to put Adams’ work on screen, everyone needs to grasp what the hell he’s talking about. Otherwise, you’re just relying on convention to tell an unconventional story.

“Everything is actually connected.”

Things do pick up by the second half. At this point, the show gets a footing in all its subplots and finally starts putting its characters to good use. It becomes clearer what kind of story it is. The tone’s still all over the map, but the plot threads do start tying together more closely. It’s just a shame that a show with such a unique concept takes so long to pick up momentum. I say it’s worth checking out if only for the charm of Dirk himself, but there’s so much other stuff the show unloads on you. It makes bingeing a chore. I get that the disconnection between plot threads is all part of the concept, but when it gets boring, it leaves me disconnected from the story.

My Rating: 6/10 

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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