In his forward to M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman offers an apt description of the late science fiction luminary. “No one else I’ve ever encountered could elevate Not Writing to an art form,” he wrote, adding: “I think that perhaps what Douglas was was probably something we don’t even have a word for yet. A Futurologist, or an Explainer, or something.” Yet what he wasn’t, Gaiman stressed, was a novelist — “despite having been an internationally bestselling novelist who had written several books which are, a quarter of a century later, becoming seen as classics.”
These include Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the 1987 detective novel Adams published almost a decade after The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made him a household name. Along with a direct sequel (The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul) and an incomplete third entry (The Salmon of Doubt), the Dirk Gently books gave Adams’ readers a title character with an extremely eccentric approach to being a private eye. Specifically, Gently never specifically does anything like look for clues or follow evidence. Instead, he passively follows fate (i.e. the universe) wherever it leads whether or not the destination has anything to do with the case. For, as the hero often says, “Everything is connected.”
Though not as heavily indebted to it as Hitchhiker’s, Dirk Gently gave Adams’ fans another version of Doctor Who, a program on which he worked. It also served as a precursor to BBC One’s Sherlock, which is perhaps why BBC America saw fit to greenlight Chronicle writer Max Landis‘ adaptation of the character for an eight-episode series. Landis’ Dirk Gently is weird. Not just weird, but extremely weird, much like Starz’s cult hit Ash vs Evil Dead, another property adapted from older source material that produces continuously weirder but enjoyable bouts of television. Of course, the Evil Dead team retains much of the original talent who brought the ’80s movies to life. The sole creator of Dirk Gently, Adams died in 2001, prior to a critically maligned BBC adaptation in 2010. Judging by the three episodes made available to critics, it seems Landis and his team have successfully taken Adams’ torch — even if the results are complicated, cumbersome and just plain odd.
The first episode, “Horizons,” opens with two ominous scenes. The first features Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett) answering a phone call and pretending to know who’s calling and what they’re talking about. Aside from vague generalizations about where Dirk’s supposed to be, it gives absolutely nothing away about the show. The second does little else to improve matters, as the camera pans across a hotel suite turned murder scene piled high with bodies, body parts, broken and occasionally scorched furniture, what appear to be massive bite marks, and a black kitten. Cue the title card and… what?
Things don’t get any better when Elijah Wood’s Todd Brotzman, an unlucky hotel concierge, stumbles on the suite, finds himself implicated in the ensuing investigation, and is fired. None of this bodes well for the overall narrative. If viewers still have no idea what’s going on by the time Todd and Dirk finally meet near the 13th minute mark, then the remaining 53 minutes, and seven other episodes, don’t stand a chance, especially since Landis packs so much seemingly unrelated material into the story, like Todd’s sister Amanda (Hannah Marks), the mysteriously captive Farah Black (Jade Eshete), missing persons detectives Estevez (Neil Brown Jr.) and Zimmerfield (Richard Schiff), holistic assassin Bart Curlish (Fiona Dourif), and her unwilling guide Ken (Mpho Koaho).
Then again, as Dirk explains to Todd, everything is not what it seems. “Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life as of late?” he asks, adding: “Perhaps a series of intense or extraordinary events which, as of now, seem unconnected — with the exception of each being separately bizarre?” For everyman Todd, such instances include a twice-seen corgi, the murder scene and his newfound inability to provide his ailing sister with medicine. Dirk claims this means his “life became a swirl of interesting activity” so he could assist with an investigation into the disappearance of a dead millionaire’s daughter. Yet it also reads as a direct address to the audience, pleading for their undivided attention and promising that — despite all signs to the contrary — everything about the show’s numerous characters and plot lines is connected.
Having seen “Lost & Found” and “Rogue Wall Enthusiasts,” Dirk’s instructions for viewers do pay off with subsequent episodes. The pilot’s brief snapshots of Farah’s captivity and Bart’s principles for killing receive more attention the deeper Dirk Gently digs into the rabbit hole. And considering how tangential Adams’ Dirk Gently books were, this format remains remarkably true to the source material, even if the detective and his abilities (or lack thereof) are the only things Landis adapts directly. Everything else in this batsh*t crazy story comes straight from the mind of the American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein writer. And that’s just fine, for if Adams were alive today, he probably wouldn’t have minded Landis’ refinements. He might not have had a word for it as Gaiman didn’t for him, but Dirk Gently is definitely “something.”
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency premieres Saturday, October 22 at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America. Until then, here’s a preview.