BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency Will Try Your Patience

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Photo: Bettina Strauss/BBC America

I have no idea what’s going on in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Although I haven’t read the two Douglas Adams novels that it’s based on, I’ve been assured by Adams devotees that you’re not supposed to know what’s going on — that knowing what’s happening is not the point of the exercise. You’re supposed to sort of feel your way through it all, go with the flow; at least that’s how the title character (Samuel Barnett) describes his investigation into a bloody cosmic disturbance that opens this BBC America series, by way of enticing a bellhop named Todd (Elijah Wood) to become his sidekick. He tells Todd that he’s less interested in the sorts of procedural details that typically obsess TV detectives than in “the fundamental interconnectness of all things.” “You’re a detective who doesn’t find clues,” Todd says, his exasperation mirroring my own.

There’s a lot going on in the first few episodes of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but at no point did I feel that anything was actually happening, in a “Why should I watch this show?” sense. The tale kicks off with a gruesome murder scene in Todd’s hotel, apparently caused by an enormous carnivore that had no way of entering the suite, but did. The investigation falls to two missing persons detectives, Estevez (Neil Brown Jr.) and Brown (Richard Schiff), who have a pleasing comic chemistry (Estevez intimidates a suspect by intoning “eyebrows,” whereupon Brown raises his eyebrows disapprovingly) but seem as mystified by what’s going on as we do. The victim is a millionaire named Patrick Spring, his daughter has been kidnapped, and no one has any idea why, or what it has to do with the bizarre hotel attack. Estevez and Brown try to get to the bottom of things on their end, while Todd and Dirk try it their way; unfortunately for Todd and Dirk, their way invariably leads to unannounced visits to unfamiliar spaces, which leads to screaming confrontations with angry strangers, some of whom are armed.

The show is filled with buddy pairings, and this is entirely intentional; there’s even dialogue pointing it out in case we miss it. A woman who calls herself Curlish (Fiona Dourif) and claims to be a “Holistic Assassin” appears seemingly out of nowhere, while a tech guy named Ken (Mpho Koaho) is doing some kind of repair work at a processing facility, and she proceeds to kill a lot of people while explaining that she never knows who she’s about to kill or why, but is certain it’s always the right person; later, she adds, “Things, they double up, they parallel. Everything is chaos, but it’s synchronized.” There are CIA assassins (led by ace character actor Miguel Sandoval) who kill a couple of people a floor above Dirk’s apartment, a terrified woman tied to a bed, and a landlord who bashes late tenants’ cars to pieces. Every five minutes or so there’s an Abbott and Costello–style exchange between one of the buddy pairings (there’s always a reasonable one and a stupid or “crazy” one).

It would take more care than I’m willing to devote to get to the bottom of why, exactly, I had no patience for this series; somewhat random shows that work mainly in bits and pieces are often catnip to me, and I’m not averse to waiting a long time for a concept to gel, as long as the characters are compelling and the individual incidents seem to have purpose and shape and don’t just feel cooked-up and glommed together. Unfortunately, cooked-up and glommed together is what Dirk Gently seems to be serving up. It’s a big dumpster full of ideas and images, some intriguing, others baffling, most rather meh.

I was also put off by the show’s overreliance on graphic violence, not because it’s violent and it’s graphic (number one Hannibal fan here, hello), but because it seems at odds with the show’s otherwise bouncy, gentle tone; the gore and pain feel like reheated cultural leftovers from that horrible late-’90s period of American cinema where every young male director wanted to be Quentin Tarantino, and thought the best way to do that was to write chatty characters who occasionally screamed at people or killed them. There are many moments when the series is nowhere near as cute as it seems to think it is, as well as some moments of deep cultural ugliness that seem to have resulted from the filmmakers not thinking through the implications of what they’re showing us, such as a scene of a bunch of bald white guys menacing a terrified black women tied to a bed.

I don’t know what, if anything, this show has to do with Adams’s source material except the basic idea — apparently the source has been adapted once before, in 2010, for British TV — but what’s onscreen is so tiresome that it made me not want to find out. The only reason to keep watching is Elijah Wood's performance in the Matthew Broderick "You're a madman, stay away from me!" role, and perhaps one or two moments where Richard Schiff gets to snarl at people. The show keeps reassuring us to stick with it, there’s a point, they’re getting to it. Life’s too short to keep watching and see if they’re telling the truth.