Here’s the thing about BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: It is, by virtue of its pacing, entertaining. But at the end of the episode, you can’t figure out why you watched it.
Dirk Gently doesn’t make you invested in any aspect of the show. That’s partly due to the fragmented story-telling convention that Douglas Adams himself put into the original book, which, for some reason, is the only thing that this TV show has decided to keep from the novel. (Do not expect this show to have anything more than a passing resemblance to Adams’ work. Down that road lies endless frustration.)
The fragmentation makes the central mystery hard to get a grip on, so you just have to trust that everything is, as the show’s marketing insists, connected. That by itself isn’t deadly to Dirk Gently; people watch shows with mysteries that go unsolved all the time.
But the fragmentation also means that viewers don’t have a grip on most of the characters. They’re just sort of weird props that propel the mess forward. And without either a clear plot or clear characterizations, Dirk Gently is a very shallow show.
The characters we do know best are Dirk Gently himself (Samuel Barnett) and Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood). Dirk is, to put it mildly, deeply annoying. He is the apotheosis of the lanky, manic British man sticking his nose where it doesn’t quite belong in order to solve a problem. This show wants, so badly, to be some sort of cross between Doctor Who and Sherlock. Unfortunately, in the process, they’ve given Dirk all of those characters’ worst qualities and took away ones that make them watchable. In both Doctor Who and Sherlock, the title characters are know-it-alls with the tendency to run off at the mouth when the mood strikes. They are often condescending and pull other people into their adventures, frustrating those people along the way.
Dirk does all that, but he has none of the authority that lets those characters get away with it. He says he doesn’t know anything, and you believe him. He doesn’t seem competent or brilliant or have any sort of quality that justifies how annoying he is. There is exactly one moment where he seems like a real human being. And there are plenty of people like that in the world, but they aren’t people you want to spend time with.
Todd is the character who is meant to be the audience surrogate, and he spends most of the first three episodes furious with Dirk. He is right to be. Dirk dive-bombs into his life, insists that Todd is his assistant, and basically brings ruin and misery to every aspect of Todd’s existence. And somehow Todd doesn’t punch him constantly in the face. Todd keeps trying to leave the story, and I kind of want to go with him.
Dirk Gently hurtles forward with weird visuals, characters spouting non-sequiturs, and amusingly oblivious speeches. And it’s those things that make the show unmiserable. The episodes are all fun, but they’re also completely inessential. Which isn’t a good way for a show that says “Everything is connected” to shake out.
“Absolutely no one has any idea what’s going on,”says Dirk at one point. He’s more right than he knows.