Elijah Wood / Bettina Strauss

The new Dirk Gently series, as adapted for BBC America by Max Landis, is going to be one of those adaptations that retains only the bare minimum of resemblance to its source material, it seems.

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Shucking its ’80s English setting for the present day and Seattle, it also loses some of the very specific charms Douglas Adams endowed the original story with. Though presumably the makers are experiencing some regret about the time change, given the sudden fit of nostalgia the public is currently bestowing on all things ’80s.

The first episode suffers from a serious amount of overstuffing, but given the nature of holistic detecting, that might be the nature of the beast. We’re introduced to a wealth of characters by the end of the episode, including main character Todd, his sick sister, Dirk himself, various and sundry sets of law enforcement figures, an unholy quartet bent on destruction, an imprisoned woman, and a hacker, who’s accompanied by an assassin channeling Helena from Orphan Black by way of Natasha Lyonne. These are not the only characters in the episode, merely the ones who are clearly going to play a role going forward in the mystery Dirk and Todd seek to solve, which is partly a murder and partly a missing persons case.

The nature of holistic detecting being what it is, there have to be a lot of moving parts that come magically together to prove the wisdom of Dirk’s methods. But it starts to seem like an onslaught, when so many people are all separate yet vital parts of the overarching plot.

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The change of venue also loses the benefit of Dirk being college pals with the hapless main character, and so there’s more of an uphill battle to climb in terms of justifying Todd’s friendship with Dirk. Todd’s life falls catastrophically apart around the same time Dirk appears, and since he’s given little more to do than react to these disasters, it’s hard to know what to make of him. He’s a dude with a college education working as a bellhop at a fancy hotel in Seattle, but his old fashioned bellhop’s uniform feels spectacularly out of place in a city as modern and young as that. He doesn’t seem to have any friends.

And Dirk is played at such a high key by Samuel Barnett that there’s not much room for him to show nuance. He’s decided to insert himself into Todd’s life because it seems like he’ll help solve the case, but his desire to make Todd his assistant/best friend is a little bewildering.

It’s possible that all of these disparate threads will settle down in future episodes as the show works on moving all of these people towards the same resolution. But the first episode was a little like reading the first chapter of about seven different books. Are we following the wacky roadtrip hijinks of the hacker and assassin? The buddy comedy of Dirk and Todd? The family drama of Todd and his sick sister?

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There are moments when the show calms down. Dirk, watching Todd and his sister jam out, briefly imagines himself jamming with them, and it’s a rare insight into what he’s actually seeking, whether a happier future or a sense of belonging.

There’s also the slight problem that Adams is uncommonly tricky to adapt. So much of the joy from reading him comes from the way he builds to jokes, and the delightful side journeys you take along the way. And all of it adds up to this all-embracing view of the universe that is as ridiculous as it is soulful. The busyness of the pilot means there’s not much space left for jokes, and what you’re left with is a cacophony of violence and questionable physics, plus an admittedly cute corgi and kitten, who probably should be included in the list of beings likely to influence the future plot.

Here is where the “But…” should be. It’s not totally clear if there is one. Somewhere hidden in all of that is a show about a man who holds deep beliefs about the interconnectedness of the universe, and another man whose life would improve if he could feel the same, but in the early going, there’s an awful lot obscuring that story.

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Stray observations

  • Of all of the character pairings, I probably most enjoyed the government agent stuck with the idiot who totally garbles “mission parameters” because “the gum went weird in my mouth.”
  • Just a thought, but I think there’s a market out there for the version of the show that’s about the corgi and kitten being friends.
  • Fans of the books caught Dirk making a reference to cases with a sofa and Thor, right?
  • Strong eyebrow work from Richard Schiff here.

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