The first thing you notice about the Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency cast is their energy. Despite being a small cast, they they seem to fill the room. Lining up for media photo ops, their boisterous laughter and banter fill the room to capacity despite the objectively small number of people. Writer Max Landis appraises his surroundings with sharp eyes and quick wit. He reads through the different news media names. He points to those who aesthetic he appreciates. He doesn’t focus on the line of cameras but on the room and people as a whole. As the photo lines continue, the cast hams it up. No two pictures are posed the same. The constant motion and ebullient joy that this cast emanates gives a sense of urgency and excitement to an otherwise monotonous press routine. The frenetic energy that the cast brings with it to the press room perfectly matches the frenetic energy of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
This energy begins and ends with writer Max Landis. As fast speaking as he seems to be fast thinking, Landis responds genially to the same press questions as many times as there are roundtables to rotate through. Over the crazy din in the press room, Landis’ voice rises above the others, his passion giving urgency to his words. He tells the table, “I’m not going to disrespect Douglas Adams; I’m not going to disrespect the characters by trying to directly adapt that into a tv show.” When asked about how he stayed true to the greatness that is Douglas Adams, Mr. Landis becomes about as serious as he seems to get during the course of the interview, saying, “There is a repeated tendency in adapting Adams’ work is to adapt what happens. The mis-en-scene , the texture of the storytelling, is the star of the book.” The members of team all feel the same sense of urgent responsibility to one of Britain’s most renowned and revered science fiction writers. Mpho Koaho, the actor who portrays Ken, stated, “Your trying to do justice to the material. We’re aware of the legendary greatness of this great man, and then this other great man comes along and pens this awesome, there’s just a lot going on and you hope you did it justice. We’re just appreciative of the opportunity. You don’t always get to do material like this. It’s racy, exciting, funny, violent. There’s some pretty cool dialogue too.” Everyone on this team, although to watch them banter and joke like cousins at a reunion the word family might be more appropriate, recognizes the importance of the roles they have taken on and recognize the great weight they carry by stepping into them
This dedication to the project comes not just from the writer of the show but also from the actors and show-runner Robert Cooper. When asked what he brought to the project, Mr. Cooper responded, “I was inspired by the voice and the spark in the script when I read it. I think what I wanted to help bring to the show was the continuity of relatable characters over the course of the season and how they interacted with this incredibly absurd world and each other. Then some form of execution of this wild imagination. You can write something on a page that comes alive and seems great but then how do you actually do that? We had a fun but challenging time getting this on film.” Landis, a prolific writer, makes Cooper’s job one that requires a lot of conversation back and forth. As Cooper noted, he will often tell Landis, “We can do seven of these ten things, which are the seven that that make the difference?” Mr. Landis clearly recognizes the importance of Cooper’s focus, creating a balanced team. Landis told the reporters, “What’s great about Rob is that he is execution based, he makes it real. But he gets the tone. He gets the humor. So it’s not like it gets diluted. Rob did an excellent job of executing these very ambitious scripts.” Focusing the editing on the most important elements for the story create an almost Poe-like cohesion for these narratives.
This focus and purposefulness is seen even in the show’s humor. Ms. Marks notes that she feels, “The humor exists within Bart and Dirk because as the holistic characters, they are allowed to be broad.” She continues with the importance of character to the humor, as opposed to one-liner style gags or physical humor for the sake of a laugh by saying, “There’s no jokes in our show that are just jokes to be jokes. They’re all coming from the character.” The charming, boyish star, Sam Barnett, follows up by noting, ” The characters are really grounded. The world is grounded and then all these extraordinary things happen within this very grounded world. Then the characters get more extraordinary as we go along. I love Douglas’s writing but it’s because of his observations about life. How do you adapt that? I think what Max has brought is further depth.” Listening to the writer and cast wax happily poetic on the importance of character over plot in the show, oriented me to what I would be watching in the most exciting way possible.
I am, admittedly, not one who meditates at the altar of Adams. I came to Douglas Adams at a formative time in my life, as do most people. In high school, my orchestra-stand-partner-turned-boyfriend introduced me to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Monty Python. Unlike most formative-aged geeks, I found both of these, well, not my speed. This means that the fandom excitement over the screen adaptation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency falls far outside my wheelhouse. My desire to research brought my to the Dirk Gently novel after interviewing the team but before previewing the first episode. Unlike my teenage self, my adult self was far more enraptured by Adams’ tone and world building. For the 50 pages I managed to read before this went to press, the absurdity of the characters and their situations resonated for both their humor and humanity. I also dipped my toe into some of the graphic novel/comic adaptations to get a sense of this world into which I would be plunging. Again, I found myself ensconced in a particularly enjoyable non-linear linearity. Giving myself an orientation into Dirk Gently’s world felt like stepping into the literary equivalent of a Dali painting.
With that in mind, I hunkered down to watch the first three episodes of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
The surrealism of Dirk Gently lies not just in the story, but in the show’s entire aesthetic. The first time we see Todd, he is wearing his bellhop uniform. The bright red of the uniform contrasts with the washed out colors of the hotel and the darker colors seen in other scenes. However, it also parallels the deep reds of Farah’s setting. Without giving away the actual plots, the show intersects three main narratives that also incorporate several adjacent side plots. To an extent, this is vaguely reminiscent of how Game of Thrones incorporates a flow of multiple interrelated yet distinct plot lines. The difference here, however, is that the way in which the main and sub narratives are intertwines hints at the overall interconnected thread without spelling it out. The saturated colors of Dirk’s yellow jacket, Todd’s red uniform, and Farah’s red room are offset by the dark colors of night or the washed out colors of the hotel giving everything almost a sense of being in the midst of a Magritte painting.
As Landis noted, the plot is not the driver of the show. Although all the interconnected stories are interesting, it is really the characters and their reactions to the events as opposed to the events themselves that drive viewer interest. Each character has their own specific speech pattern. Farah’s is clipped, short, and to the point. Dirk rambles but in the way that feels more like taking a circuitous route to a destination as opposed to getting lost without a map. Todd speech is often hushed or spaced in a sort of gasping way evidencing his continual sense of fear. Amanda speaks little but her movements speak for her, particularly her eyes. Bart has some Fargo-esque accent and speaks in short, cryptic sentences. Much as he character is a foil to Dirk, so is her speech. Zimmerman, played by Richard Schiff, functions as almost the comedic version of Toby Zeigler, his beloved character from The West Wing. Where Toby always knew what was going on, Zimmerman never does but attempts to fake it until he makes it. However, Schiff’s clipped speech and sharp tone is still very Toby in a lot of ways making the character particularly fun for West Wing fans.
The show’s pacing is excellent. Often, as someone who needs a large amount of stimulation to keep my attention, I find my mind wandering, wanting to head to my social media while waiting for the action to commence or because the show is entering predictable territory. Throughout the three episodes of Dirk Gently, I did not once want to check either my social media or my watch. In addition, again as someone often needing to be knitting in order to focus, I felt no need to occupy the back of my brain while the front of my brain watched the show. Being this engaged in a show without even a whiff of wanting to do something else is a rarity. I often find that most television shows are either so trite I don’t need to pay attention but for background noise, too intense needing some kind of physical outlet (Game of Thrones, Walking Dead), or to slow for me to keep continued interest. However, Dirk Gently is like the show for the short attention span crowd. The constant shifting between narratives kept me engaged. However, unlike many shows in which the narrative shifts feel forced or jumpy, Dirk Gently handles them smoothly particularly because this surreality is part of the overarching spirit of the novel and show.
Mr. Barnett as Dirk Gently creates a sense of both pathos and humor. For those looking for the quirky character with whom they fell in love literarily, Barnett says fans will not be disappointed because “Dirk is very much who Dirk is in the book. Max has brilliantly kept the spirit and integrity of that character.” The titular character’s entrance, seemingly out of nowhere, takes his companion-to-be Todd by surprise. As Todd resists Dirk’s frocklingly forceful friendship attempts, viewers get to see a sense of Dirk’s anti-Sherlockian personality. As Mr. Barnett joked before becoming more serious, “Dirk is a really terrible detective who thinks he’s really brilliant. If Sherlock has his mind palace, Dirk has his emotional neuroses cottage. He is psychic, and he is connected. He does receive all these messages from the universe. He just doesn’t know what to do with them. He’s connected to everything in the universe, but he can’t connect with other people.” Misplaced pets, particularly corgis and kittens, play a bizarrely tangential yet crucial role in the first episode. These animals enhance, symbolically, this sense of innocent reliance on others commingled with independence, a desire to please, and a need for a home embodied in the character of Dirk.
The show’s humor, again in the spirit of the books, combined with the darker themes of loneliness and escape give the actors a great sense of satisfaction. As professionals, all Ms. Eshete, Ms. Marks, and Mr. Barnett all feel that their characters’ depth and complexity gives them a sense of professional fulfillment. Most interestingly, the characters break most of the gender confines for both actor and actress. Ms. Eshete described her character Farah Black as “a tactical genius, bad-ass bodyguard, takes care of Dirk and Todd. I make sure they don’t die. She’s amazing at what she does she can take down three or four guys at the same time. But she’s also very neurotic. She’s a perfectionist. She comes down hard on herself. Sometimes it’s very comical.” Ms. Eshete’s enthusiasm about her character comes through not simply in the rapid fire response or the grin on her face, but her physical demeanor. As she speaks, she leans forward a bit almost as if she cannot contain the excitement of sharing Farah with others.
This sense of the overachieving, physically strong, female character may seem like another “strong female character, but the female characters do not exhibit physical strength at the expense of emotional connection. Ms. Marks jumped in first when asked about the representation of gender for the characters, saying, “‘I feel really excited because this is the first time I’ve never had a love interest. This is amazing to me that I don’t have that. I’m not a character that is dependent on any boy or a boyfriend. I don’t even mention it. Men don’t play a role in our lives unless we’re saving them. It feels very feminist and cool and exciting. It’s not something we were even conscious of because it felt so natural. It proves that there needs to be more television like that.” Refreshingly, the actresses did not have to think about how to approach their characters to make them both strong and vulnerable, the characters are simply just strong multifaceted personalities. Ms. Eshete, without a breath’s pause, followed directly, saying, “Yes, these women are very strong, Farrah and Bart, but I so see the emotional depth in both of these characters. With Farrah, we’re going to see as the season goes on. Her job is much more personal to her than what appears to be on the surface. We see a lot of the emotional things come up, the grief, the sadness, the pain. You also see that in Bart. There are so many wonderful moments.”
Like siblings engaging in fake squabbling, Ms. Marks jumped in to ask why her character, Amanda, wasn’t mentioned in that list. After some good-natured joking, Mark continued, “They’re three dimensional full characters with so many layers and complexities which is really rare, unfortunately, for women.” However, one of the most often ignored problem with gender writing in popular culture is the lack of strong emotional roles for men. Mr. Barnett joined the discussion, noting, “There’s a rare quality in this show. You see it in the male characters as well. They’re not these tough guys with the soft interior. Everyone is vulnerable, neurotic, lonely. The two biggest themes in this show are the search for meaning, interconnectedness, and loneliness. What I also love is that all of these characters are incredibly brave/stupid. All of them put themselves in jeopardy all the time, but they’re doing it from a place of wanting to better themselves. It’s not a gender thing. It’s completely beautiful.”
After watching the first three episodes, it’s hard to ignore the impact that Mr.Landis’ personality brings to the show. When questioned, Mr. Landis demurred, saying, “My personality doesn’t much come into my writing. A lot of the characters I write about are different from myself. Dirk is not terribly different from me. I try to make it easy for other people to work with me. It’s a very energetic show.” However, listening to the quick banter of the dialogue and the sense of the extreme within the show, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is, if nothing else, a fictional representation of Landis’ public persona and great sense of exuberant fun. Perhaps, Landis is the Alexander Hamilton of science fiction television. At one point he responded to a question by saying, “I write more and faster than anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t write better, but I have a tremendous amount of ideas. I’m incredibly persistent about those ideas. When I rewrite I rewrite really quickly. I don’t know many rewriters who do what I do which is just write. I’m always working on at least three things.” In a bemused voice, still talking at his rapid pace, he slips in, “And it comes from tremendous insecurity, and low self-worth and a frantic need for validation and fill a giant empty pit inside of me.” If I thought it would have been appropriate, I would have belted out the chorus from “Non-Stop” since I could imagine Landis writing like he was running out of time.
If the first three episodes of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency tell me anything, it’s that I hope Landis continues to write day and night.