Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dirk Gently and the Fundamental Interconnectedness of All British TV

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on March 24, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd star in Dirk Gently, on BBC Four

Adapting beloved literary characters to television is a risky business. Often, though, it is a risk well worth taking, as in Steven Moffat’s sublime variation on the classic Conan Doyle characters and stories in Sherlock, which recently aired its second season. This year, the BBC tries its hand at another generation’s literary hero: Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently. The TV version of Dirk Gently first saw the light of day as a 60-minute test pilot that aired in December 2010. Commissioned for a three-part series a few months later, the first new episode premiered on BBC Four on March 5 and its third and last episode aired just this past Monday. With Gently, the result is less explosive than with Sherlock, but then again, the show is working with a smaller palette (smaller budget, and a half hour less screen time per episode – a Gently episode is 60 minutes, while Sherlock episodes run 90) and a much more restricted canon. On the other hand, Moffat was hardly the first to adapt the great detective, and Dirk Gently hasn’t (yet!) been immortalized as a puppet on Sesame Street. Adams’ fans have reason to be apprehensive, and when it comes to this new series, it is really a matter of balancing expectations.

Less of an adaptation of the wickedly funny novels than a new work inspired by the tone, themes, and characters of the two Dirk Gently novels – Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988), Douglas Adams’ follow-up to his immensely popular The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels – the new series follows the adventures of Dirk Gently (Stephen Mangan), part hapless private detective and part conman, and his put-upon sidekick, Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd). The show’s creator, Howard Overman, clearly has no ambition to literally translate the novels to the small screen, and the series genuinely succeeds in capturing the spirit, if few of the details, of Adams’ stories.

In the series, we are introduced to Gently, the longtime owner and proprietor of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a business which occupies one dingy room that wouldn’t be out of place on A&E’s Hoarders, has some very ingenious secret escape routes, and has an actively useless secretary (who is either in tortured love with Gently or is psychopathically waiting to kill him). According to Dirk, everything is connected. To solve a case, to find a person, you need to investigate the entire situation – the whole situation. What this means is that everything that catches Gently’s fancy, everything he touches and everything he sees, will eventually come together to solve the (very few and unremunerative) cases that are brought to his agency. This is in itself a fun comic variant of the usual TV detective story, where experienced viewers can often figure out who the murderer is based on which guest star’s name appears in the opening credits. Here, because everything is important, viewers can genuinely be surprised by the surreal denouement. All the conventional rules of investigation, including logic as it is usually understood, and certainly any notion of ‘method’, are anathema to this detective whose methodological touchstone is “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” Dirk’s faith in this principle is both hilarious and slapstick, but the series also makes clear that this daily reliance on precepts of chaos theory and quantum mechanics has made Dirk nearly incapable of taking control over his own life. Dirk’s unwavering attention to the ‘big picture’ generally leaves him incapable of doing things like paying bills, fixing his car, or living up to basic social expectations.

A scene from a recent episode of Misfits
As the writer and creator of the hit series Misfits, Howard Overman has already proven he can create compelling and highly entertaining science fiction stories on a shoestring budget. By focusing less on special effects and more on smart writing and original characters, Misfits was a revelation to the popular genre of superhero television when it premiered in 2009. For fans of Misfits, Dirk Gently – with its almost middle-aged characters and family-friendly plots – might seem like an extreme departure for Overman, but the insane charm of the new series has a cross-generational appeal that more than make up for its lack of poetic profanity and dystopic 20-somethings.

Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd – likely still best known for respective roles on Green Wing – have terrific comic chops. Most recently, Mangen is most recognizable for his role in Showtime’s Episodes (for which co-star Matt LeBlanc recently won a Golden Globe for playing… Matt LeBlanc) and Boyd for his leading role in SKY1’s light half-hour espionage comedy Spy, which premiered in the fall. The latter showcases Boyd’s large frame and gentle manner, both of which are on display in his portrayal of MacDuff on Gently. Mangan gives real life to the frantically energetic Dirk Gently, with his lanky frame and hair reminiscent of Tom Baker’s era Doctor Who. (This feature is especially fitting: not only did Douglas Adams spend some time in the late 70s writing scripts for Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, but many key plot elements from the first Dirk Gently novel began their life in a story Adams wrote for an unproduced Doctor Who serial.)

Though the series continues to borrow small plot details from the novels (time travel, lost cats, vengeful cleaning ladies, Dirk’s bitter and actively useless secretary Janice, his propensity for fatty foods), Overman makes no attempt to adapt the broad plots of the novels, which would be beyond the budget of most television series. (And moreover, practically impossible for a series commissioned for BBC Four, still the youngest sibling in the BBC channel family. Dirk Gently is actually the first continuing drama series ever commissioned for the digital channel.) Don’t expect millennia-spanning narratives, underemployed Norse gods, Electric Monks, or a cameo by Samuel Taylor Coleridge any time soon. The intricate plotting of the novels is probably the very definition of unfilmable – though I confess I would shell out $12.99 any day of the week to see a film version of Valhalla-as-St.-Pancras-Station (or is that St.-Pancras-Station-as-Valhalla?) – but this new series regularly succeeds in telling inspired and complicated stories, with panache and a great deal of fun.

Stephen Mangan as Dirk Gently
If the TV series does sacrifice much of the metaphysical and epic world-historical scope of the original novels, it often makes up for it with small insights into the messy inner-workings of its title character. In a moment of atypical humility and self-knowledge from the third episode, Dirk remarks mournfully to MacDuff that “when a man loses sight of his carpet, he is no longer a man.” For a split second before he regains himself, we get a glimpse beneath the shameless bravado of a man so long buffeted about by often invisible forces beyond his control that his one defence mechanism has been to give that very chaos and impotence meaning, manifesting most patently in his famous confidence in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” True to his character, it takes only a small pep talk from MacDuff to get Dirk back into the game, but this momentary lapse testifies to the fact of that Overman’s series has ambitions often distinct from the devilishly cartoonish source material.

The third episode of Dirk Gently demonstrates the challenge of telling these chaos theory-inspired stories on regular television: they ultimately resolve themselves in a kind of anti-narrative, and the person at the centre isn’t so much a hero as a context in which events to unfold. I was reminded of an early episode of CSI  – titled, of course, “Chaos Theory” – from the beginning of its second season, long before the show mutated into a multi-series franchise. Tasked with investigating the apparent murder of a young college student, our forensics team spends the hour piecing together strings of apparently unrelated incidents, eventually concluding that she died as a result of an accident: there was in fact no crime at all, but merely a tragedy at the tail end of an unlikely series of events. The episode closes with Grissom (William Petersen) trying, and failing, to explain all this to the young woman’s parents, who remain convinced that their grief demands a real explanation. They couldn’t hear what they were being told because it didn’t fit any established narrative: they needed a crime and a criminal, someone to blame and someone to punish. And this is the narrative frame that TV viewers expect from our procedurals. It is therefore not surprising that CSI told that kind of story exactly once. Dirk Gently the character isn’t exactly an anti-hero, but Dirk Gently the series is a bit of an anti-plot. Last Monday’s episode (written by Jamie Mathieson, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel) ran headlong into just this sort of narrative minefield and masterfully came out the other side, primarily by dramatizing the human experience at its core.

A surreal comedy masquerading as a detective procedural, Dirk Gently is a delightful and often brilliant hybrid of some of the best elements of Sherlock and Doctor Who. Significantly lighter than Sherlock, Gently is suitable viewing for the whole family – a feature which has made Doctor Who such a flagship show for the BBC – and boldly borrows and reinvents the comic dynamic of the mismatched, yet perfectly symbiotic, relationship of a pair of detectives so perfectly executed in Moffat’s Sherlock.

Dirk Gently is an ingeniously satisfying show that borrows some of the least consequential elements from the original novels and weaves them together into inspired new stories. But then again, in Dirk Gently’s universe of quantum interconnectedness, who are we to say which elements are consequential and which are not?