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Arts in Review

Netflix’s Dirk Gently is absurd in the best way

I only got around to watching one show over the winter break, and through some considerable luck, it turned out to be one that, while certainly not for everyone, was definitely for me.

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I only got around to watching one show over the winter break, and through some considerable luck, it turned out to be one that, while certainly not for everyone, was definitely for me. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency shares a title and title character with Douglas Adam’s lesser-known series (also author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but from my understanding of the books, it shares little else. This re-imagining transplants the thoroughly English character to Washington state with an original story and a new personality.

Despite the character’s new direction, writer Max Landis does an excellent job of providing Adams-esque humour without directly mimicking his style. The story is a bizarre, absurd experience that revels in its own confusion and silliness and provides plenty of wordy, dryly humorous conversations. Despite that, it’s tough to classify Dirk Gently wholly as a comedy. And despite the word “detective” being in the title, it’s not a great mystery. It has plenty of more dramatic and serious moments, but a large portion of the show is focused on the theme of confusion, with characters from all of the numerous factions knowing as little or less than the viewer and frequently commenting on it. It makes for a unique eight-episode run, which you can try to piece together as you go (and some answers can certainly be guessed well ahead of their reveal) but it’s perhaps best to just let the absurdity wash over you.

This confusing and tangled plot centres on Todd Brotzman, a bellhop portrayed by Elijah Wood who is drawn into a web of intrigue when he discovers a gruesome murder in the penthouse of the hotel he works at. Wood’s acting is top notch, and despite his memorable voice and face, by the end of the first episode I’d managed to stop thinking of him as Frodo. He soon encounters Samuel Barnett as Dirk Gently, a detective who claims to solve mysteries through fate, putting him in the right place at the right time rather than by actual deduction. The character is a sort of manic, fast-talking eccentric who, while not the most original in execution, does provide plenty of the show’s humour with his unbridled enthusiasm and optimism. A large supporting cast of memorable characters both aids and impedes the two, but special mention has to go to Jade Eshete as the murder victim’s unexpectedly complex bodyguard, and Aaron Douglas as one of the most entertainingly bumbling villains I’ve seen in a very long time.

Another draw of the series for me was the location. While set in Washington, like so many shows it was filmed in B.C. and more specifically, portions were filmed in Mission and Maple Ridge. One might think that after years of seeing areas I drive through daily on TV it would get old, but there’s still a definite thrill to pausing a scene and saying “I know that gas station!”

As I mentioned, however, this show isn’t for everyone. It requires a viewer with a high tolerance for absolute absurdity and delayed, sometimes unsatisfying answers. It is by no means a straightforward, conventional procedural, and for some people the ridiculousness of the sci-fi elements, the characters, and the situation as a whole will be off-putting. However, the show hits its peak early and maintains its level of quality, so if you aren’t hooked by the end of the second episode, you’re not going to get anything more out of continuing.

That said, the running theme of destiny and predetermined fate did wear a bit thin for me as the show went on. I understand that it’s central to the conceit of the original books — that Dirk’s “holistic” investigation method means the universe always places him in the right place at the right time. Another character, Fiona Dourif’s Bart Curlish plays a foil to Dirk as a holistic assassin who kills whoever the universe puts in front of her. This idea gives the show a free pass for whatever deus ex machina is needed to resolve any plot point, but perhaps that’s a blessing in disguise for a show as complicated as this.

In the end, Dirk Gently held my attention and got me to binge more episodes than I’d intended on multiple occasions. The series is available on Netflix, and if any aspect of it intrigues you, it’s well worth giving a chance. I’m certainly looking forward to season 2, and I’m glad I stumbled across the show… or perhaps the universe put it in front of me as the answer to a question I didn’t have.

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