Confession time: I read “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” while my junior year prom was in full swing. Like Douglas Adams’ misfit detective, I didn’t feel like I was part of the mainstream. Unlike him, though, I didn’t realize that the interconnectedness of all things might lead me on some wild adventures, so I stayed home.
Dirk may never be as well known as Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and the other members of Adams’ wildly popular “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books, but his by-the-seat-of-his-pants way of getting things done certainly fits into that series’ sensibilities. I think part of the reason why the first Dirk Gently book, as well as the follow-up, “Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul,” never quite caught on was the point-of-view. While we viewed the “Hitchhikers” universe through Arthur Dent’s everyman eyes, the Dirk Gently books center around him, and he’s not someone whose skin we really want to inhabit — like Ford Prefect, he’s a character who’s best experienced from a bit of a distance.
This BBC adaptation of the books suffers a bit from the same problem — Dirk is an amusing character whose antics we enjoy watching, but he often engages in some questionable behavior, such as when he rifles through a dead man’s wallet for money, under the pretense that he was owed for services. Somewhere I read a bit of marketing copy that compared this show to “Monk,” but Tony Shalhoub’s phobia-riddled character was someone I could easily root for, whereas Dirk Gently has to be a detective who we root for despite our qualms over his behavior. Sometimes that works in this TV series and sometimes it doesn’t.
The opening story in this short-lived four-episode series borrows much from the first Dirk Gently book, including him taking on the case of a missing cat. It’s a nice introduction to the character and his world, and the resolution of the cat’s whereabouts is clever. Unfortunately, subsequent episodes in the series begin veering away from that same light-hearted tone — every story involves at least one murder, and the more fanciful science-inspired elements are reduced to Dirk repeatedly talking about the interconnectedness of all things and his “zen navigation” technique, which involves following someone who seems to know where they’re going. (“I never arrive where I wanted to be, but I always arrive where I was supposed to be,” Dirk says of the trick.) In addition, none of the subsequent mysteries’ resolutions are anywhere near as clever as the missing cat one.
Unfortunately, many of the more interesting elements from the books, such as the Electric Monk and the appearance of Norse gods, never appear in this series, leaving us with a pedestrian TV series that feels like a riff on “Monk.” I’m sure budgets probably held the show’s creators back from including some of the books’ more over-the-top elements, but if they could include a robot, I’m sure they could have given us Thor. In addition, much of Adams’ humor was lost along the way, but his books are full of funny observations that are almost impossible to translate to TV or film, since you can’t always just shove them in the dialogue.
This two-disc set has no bonus features, which is a shame since I would have liked to hear from the show’s creators, as well as friends of Adams, his editor, and others who could share some insight into the books’ creation and this TV adaptation. The 12th anniversary of his much-too-soon passing is upon us and his birthday was celebrated in a Google Doodle recently, leaving me in a melancholy mood that has me yearning for the old days, when it seemed like he would be around forever and would have many more stories to tell.