Douglas Adams is not an author whose stories are suitable for the screen. His stories are barely suitable for the page. The writer’s genius lies not his in narrative prowess, but in his ever-inventive stream of imagination and humour – a stream that saw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy soar to international success on the radio and screens big and small. It’s also made his other works equally appealing to broadcasters.
Enter Dirk Gently, who, not very long after a BBC Four adaptation, gets a fresh telly treatment, courtesy of BBC America and Netflix. As you’d expect from that contrast, the end result is strikingly different: gone is the shabby, lazy shambles of a man, somewhere between a disorganised philosophy professor and a grifter taking clients for all the money and biscuits he can get; in his place, a young, fresh-faced eccentric, with a bright and breezy approach to the chaos around him. Out with the tweed and in with the neon leather jacket. Gently does it? Not quite.
It’s a big obstacle to leap over, especially given how good Stephen Mangan was in Dirk’s BBC Four incarnation – and while Samuel Barnett doesn’t make the jump cleanly, he certainly gives it everything he’s got. He’s hyperactive, chirpy, intrusive and completely lacking in shame, qualities that put his Dirk firmly in that dangerous bracket of being either amusing, annoying, or (most likely) a bit of both. As he runs from one crime scene to another, with increasingly bizarre things occurring, it’s like watching an audition for Doctor Who.
Behind this hot take on the holistic detective – who believes in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, an outlook that essentially sees him follow whatever’s in front of him, in the belief that it’ll produce a relevant clue – is Max Landis. While he retains that central premise, though, he jettisons pretty much everything else, adding in secret agents, guns and gory deaths. Also new is hotel bellhop Todd (Elijah Wood), who finds himself the adoptive flatmate of Dirk, despite his protests to the contrary, and, eventually, the sidekick to Dirk’s adventures. Wood is a dab-hand at playing the likeable everyman. As his eyes widen at every new bonkers discovery, questioning Dirk’s bizarre decisions, the show settles into a watchable groove of a modern Sherlock Holmes.
That’s the main problem that faces this relentlessly fast-paced series: in ditching Dirk’s original material, it replaces it with things that remind you of other shows or characters. But there are promising nuggets amid the madness, from a surprisingly tender storyline involving Todd’s sister, Amanda (Hannah Marks), who forms a deceptively subtle bond with Dirk (Barnett gets better and more settled after the eager-to-please pilot), to a “holistic assassin” (a scene-stealing Fiona Dourif), who takes the central tenet of our protagonist to wonderful, opposite extremes. Underneath it all lies the manic music of the excellent composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, who brings a suitably offbeat tone to proceedings. The result isn’t the Dirk Gently fans will know – far from it. But as the programme repeatedly throws ideas at the screen, from energy vampires to lost pets, that non-stop energy slowly begins to form a whole from its uneven fragments that, while all over the place, not as funny as you might like and barely logical, is strangely entertaining. Maybe it is a bit like Douglas Adams after all.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.