Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency REVIEW

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency REVIEW

0 comments 📅10 December 2016, 11:25

New to Netflix in the UK this week (from Sunday 11 December) is the BBC America version of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency based on that other series of books by Hitchhiker’s Guide author Douglas Adams. Starring Samuel Barnett, Elijah Wood, Hannah Marks, Jade Eshete and a whole flotilla of familiar faces, it’s been adapted for the screen by Max Landis.

To say Landis is a divisive figure is like the argument about whether green is the colour of cheese and onion or salt and vinegar crisps; whatever you choose it’s always going to be salty. We’ve found some of his work huge fun (Chronicle), some of it fun (The first half of Victor Frankenstein) and some of it very very awful (the second half of Victor Frankenstein). So we went into this cautiously.

Also, full disclosure; at time of writing we only had seven of the eight episodes available to us for review. We’ll run our verdict of episode eight as soon as we have it.

Also, the first thing you need to know: it’s NOTHING like the books. Even less like the books than the Preacher TV series was like the Preacher comics (yes that is possible). Whether or not this is a good thing is a discussion for another article. Let’s for the moment judge the show on its own merits. After all, AMC’s Preacher was great, so there’s no reason why an off-piste Dirk Gently shouldn’t go down just as well. After all, it’s already been greenlit for a second season so it must be finding an audience.


The series kicks off with “Horizons” which is both the best possible pilot episode for an extended run of Dirk Gently and pretty much everything a pilot episode shouldn’t be. It opens on the murder of Patrick Spring, a tech magnate who was apparently bitten in half by a shark.

In a hotel room.

In under ten seconds.

The case is tied to the disappearance of his daughter Lydia, which is in turn connected to Todd. Todd lives in a building called The Ridgely which is going to be VERY important. He works in the hotel Spring died in and Lydia’s bodyguard is chained to a bed in the apartment above his. All of which is fine. Until that plot, and the really good stuff with Todd’s sister Amanda, is swept away in favour of some physical comedy, a little action and a frankly astounding amount of law enforcement agencies converging on Todd’s apartment. Oh, and not one but two moments of epic happenstance and a very ill-advised special effect.

It shouldn’t work. Especially as the really interesting and well set-up central mystery wanders off to get a coffee while the episode flaps around for its back half hour. But a hot narrative mess is kind of a tradition for any given iteration of Dirk Gently’s opening stages so you pretty much go along with it.


Plus the cast is intimidatingly great. There are fewer people you won’t recognise here than ones you will. Character actor greats Miguel Sandoval (Medium) and Osric Chau (Supernatural) are tremendous fun as the long-suffering Colonel Riggins and a member of a feral black ops team called The Rowdy Three (there are four of them) respectively. Elsewhere, the magnificent Richard Schiff (The West Wing) is on top form as Detective Zimmerfield and his banter with Neil Brown Jr’s Detective Estevez feels like it could power a show itself. But the break-out is Hannah Marks as Amanda, Todd’s sister. While the disease she suffers from, pararibulitis, is fictional, her portrayal of someone with a chronic illness is way more powerful than you might think. The show’s exploration of the depressive side effects of her condition, and her relationship with Todd as a result, is its strongest point and gives Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett their best moments too.

Oh and Mpho Koaho is instantly endearing as Ken, a hacker specialising in electrical services. His client is a bald man with some very specific tattoos, a feature that turns up in a lot of the plots here and is rarely less than annoying.

Ken’s client doesn’t really get the chance to be annoying though, given that he’s killed almost straight away by Bart Curlish. Bart, played with gravelly voiced abandon by Fiona Dourif, is a holistic assassin. She wants to kill Dirk and she figures creation will eventually put the two of them together.

All these side characters are fun but the show lives and dies on Dirk and Todd. Thankfully, Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett are fantastic throughout. Wood plays Todd as grounded and normal rather than dull, making him a foil rather than a straight man. Barnett’s Dirk is excellent; an exuberant British puppy of a chap who has just a dash of experience beyond his years. Their interaction is huge fun and, thankfully, has some weight to it. It’s not an instant double act and that tension leads directly into episode two.


“Lost and Found” sees Dirk and Todd on the same page and that page leading them to Lydia Spring. Both of her. Don’t worry, it gets explained as the show lays out a good chunk of its arc plot with a surprising amount of discipline. Dirk and Todd are one plot, Zimmerfield and Estevez another, Ken and Bart the third. Those three orbit around each other in some surprising and very fun ways that drive the overall plot along.

There are still problems, big ones. Farah spends a second episode tied to the bed for no particularly good reason; there are still way too many leering bald thugs; and some of the humour feels mean-spirited. Plus dodgy special effects once again. That being said, it’s a definite gear change from episode one.


“Rogue Wall Enthusiasts”, as well as having possibly the greatest title you’ll read this year, continues to focus down. With Farah FINALLY rescued, she and Dirk look into Spring’s will and find several very odd events. Like just how much he saw his death coming and the fact that Farah receiving her inheritance was dependent on Dirk being there…Jade Eshete is fantastic now she’s no longer tied to a bed and actually allowed to do things. In many ways she’s a better foil for Dirk than Todd, her grumpy professionalism a neat counterfoil to his endless enthusiasm.

Elsewhere, Todd tries to explain to the cops what’s going on, while we get the truth about Operation Blackwing and some pretty serious hints about Dirk and Bart. This new backstory for Dirk is the show’s biggest divergence from the source material but it works pretty well, even if Landis is pretty solidly back in American Ultra territory. Meanwhile, Bart and Ken are captured by a group of bikers and learn some interesting lessons about the consequences of Bart’s lifestyle. Bart is flat-out terrifying this episode and Fiona Dourif is rapidly becoming the best part of the show.

Most surprising of all, though, is the way Amanda’s relationship with the Rowdy Three develops. It’s belligerent and confrontational and weirdly sweet. The Rowdy Three, terrible bald guys aside, are still the least interesting part of the show but this does interesting things for and with them.

Also this episode: Van Der Graaf generators! Tesla stuff! Much less of the crap bald guys! And a KILLER ending!


“Watkin”, the fourth episode, is again a three-plot affair. The major, and best one, is Dirk and Todd trapped in a deathmaze (Todd’s word) beneath the streets of Seattle. There’s some lovely steampunk Raiders Of The Lost Ark stuff here and it’s a cleverly designed plot that brings the guys closer together while subtly shifting their power dynamic.

The other two plots are less effective. One sees Amanda menaced by an FBI agent with a very odd agenda all of his own. When she’s rescued by Farah there’s this brilliant scene where Farah just verbally demolishes the guy. She sees right through him, sees that something is far from right and tells him so in no uncertain terms. This, much like a similar moment earlier with Zimmerfield and Estevez feels like characters in a genre show ACTUALLY PAYING ATTENTION TO THINGS. It’s glorious.

It’s also wasted. The agent’s comeback takes her out at the knees and in doing so not only forces her to be an idiot for the sake of the plot but shines a light on a very uncomfortable truth about the show…

It deals, very well, with mental health issues. One character talks to herself and has some level of panic attacks. Another has depression, possibly manic, caused by a long-term illness.

Both are women.

Dirk and Todd both have clear signs of depression or mania to them but for them it’s a feature not the feature. Amanda is defined by her illness, Farah is held back by her psychology.

Once you see it you can’t unsee it. And it leaves a pretty nasty aftertaste.

Especially given the third plot here brings Aaron Douglas’s Gordon Rimmer front and centre in a way that does one thing right and one thing very wrong. The right thing is the way in which it ties off another narrative. The wrong thing is it does so with a moment of savage violence against a woman.

So! Five female characters. One’s depressed, one’s paranoid, one (Bart) is clearly insane, one’s dead and one has had her soul swapped with a dog.


Onto episode five!             


“Very Erectus”, terrible title and the joke that goes with it aside, is one of the strongest episodes. The series does an excellent job of knocking down dominoes one at a time and we get plenty of that here. Zim and Estevez discover the abandoned building that Rimmer was operating of and pay a heavy price for that. Todd and Dirk go on a treasure hunt which leads them to both confess some pretty major home truths and Amanda and the Rowdy Three discover just how much they have in common. That last plot is the most engaging part of the episode and the Rowdy Three have come a very long way from their first appearance. Plus, we get a ton more background on them, Dirk, Colonel Riggins and his role in their lives. We also get the horribly misjudged stuff with Milligan, Riggins’ partner but you can’t have everything.


“Fix Everything”, appropriately, does nothing of the sort. Todd tells Amanda what he just told Dirk and it goes even worse than he could possibly have imagined. Estevez tells the truth and gains nothing but pain from it. Dirk and Todd solve the case (sort of) and it makes their lives even more complicated. Best of all, though, is one confrontation that’s been brewing all season coming to the fore. The scene, spoilers aside, is everything we hoped for and more. It cements two characters, asks even more questions and is sweet and brutal in equal proportion. Oh and there’s a massive, massive twist at the end too.


“Weaponized Soul” is where everything is explained and everything falls apart. The entire season builds to this episode. This is where the case is solved. The only problem is, it’s solved in a way that just sort of happens. The good news is that means Samuel Barnett gets to do a five minute straight monologue which is sort of brilliant. The bad news is that’s literally the only reason the episode works. And yes we know the whole point of Dirk stories is that he’s the patron saint of Ramshackle but still this entire solution boils down to “…cos”.

There are bright spots. The biggest is the ending which pulls a character beat and reversal we never saw coming but that makes perfect, heart-breaking sense. The story is told backwards and forward and you could be forgiven for getting here and then immediately watching “Horizons” again. We’re betting they sync up like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” and The Wizard of Oz.

But the simple fact that happens is also a problem. The show has an episode to tie up half its plots, having sacrificed another episode on a plot that has to be explained and a guest star who absolutely biffs the landing. You’ll know who it is around episode two or three and this is easily the flattest performance they’ve ever given. A one-off character who should be a fascinating enigma is ultimately just kind of terse and dull. Throw in the total lack of Ken and Bart, entirely too much of Rimmer and his host of idiots and the disappointing format and you’ve got a real low point for the series.

Which is where we leave you for now. Seven episodes in Dirk Gently has a staggeringly great cast, endlessly quotable dialogue, huge ambition and absolutely no idea what to do with any of its female leads. It’s never less than fun, but it’s also leaning too heavily on some major crutches. Todd yells at Dirk so regularly you can set your watch by it; Milligan’s idiot schtick gets really old really fast; and several characters are insanely stupid for no reason other than to make plot happen.

It’s always fun, but if it solved these problems it would be GREAT. One episode to go…

Review by Alasdair Stuart



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