Blightyvision: “Dirk Gently” Series 1

Directed by Tom Shankland
Written by Howard Overman, based on the novels by Douglas Adams
Starring Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd

When the initial “Dirk Gently” pilot came out, opinions were hugely mixed — to be honest, mine were mixed.  As a fan of the books, I enjoyed it while recognizing just how far from the original plot it actually was.  That turned a lot of people off (leading to colorful critiques such as “the Earth has fallen out of orbit because Douglas Adams is spinning so quickly in his grave”), but not so many that it wasn’t commissioned for a short three-episode run.

My initial thought was this: the writing style was very good.  The casting was great, the concept was nice, and the spirit of the original was there.  I felt, though, that it would have been a better choice to not worry about the original stories and just jump off into new scenarios with the characters.

Well, by God, that’s what’s happened — and boy, does it work.

Stephen Mangan (of “Episodes” and “Green Wing”) returns as Dirk Gently, a detective whose belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things aids him in his investigations.  His methods are circuitous and often seemingly misguided, but in the end he always saves the day (albeit for a substantial fee).  Darren Boyd (who was recently an uncanny John Cleese in Holy Flying Circus) is back as Richard, his reluctant business partner and tenuous tie to reality.  Together they investigate kidnapped robots, passive-aggressive love notes, eerily accurate horoscopes, and a mass murderer who seems to have it out for Dirk’s clients.

Headed up by Howard Overman, the mind behind the offbeat genre hits “Merlin” and “Misfits,” the series proper of “Dirk Gently” feels much more centered and self-assured than its pilot.  Sci-fi and paranormal elements are subtle and handled matter-of-factly (at least by Dirk himself), making everything feel more real-world and grounded than its source material.

All that said, despite not actually being based on any of Douglas Adams’s plots, it feels incredibly Adams-y.  A few lines are lifted directly from the book, and others reference story elements directly (such as Dirk’s “zen navigation” driving method).  Even plot points themselves make it in independently: the first episode references “Reason software,” a computer program that can provide justification for any action, which originally came up in the first book — the one the pilot was theoretically based on.

Let me get the negatives out of the way quickly — there really aren’t too many.  My main issue was the relative absence of Helen Baxendale as Richard’s girlfriend Susan (another character lifted from the original book).  The last episode gave her a bit of screen time and some motivation, but while the main focus does need to be on Dirk and Richard, it might have been nice to see a bit more of her.  There was also an interesting subplot hinted at concerning Dirk’s receptionist Janice (played by Lisa Jackson) that, while not urgent enough to be made a major point, would have been interesting to see toyed with a bit more.

The positives, though, far outweigh any of this.  Stephen Mangan is just awesome, and his portrayal of Dirk in the pilot was what quashed any doubts in my mind concerning the sustainability of the concept as a series.  Boyd as Richard seemed almost too underplayed at first, but comes into his own as the series progresses.  The one-shot characters each case are hit-and-miss, but for the most part hit.

And then there was a daring little idea on the part of the writers: a move toward making Dirk sympathetic.  Now, in the original books, he was one of the most unlikeable people you could imagine, and that came through early on in the pilot.  But throughout these three episodes, he’s humanized a bit — even gets a brief crush.  It was a dangerous game they played, but they managed to make the audience warm to him (a bit reluctantly at first) without wrecking his persona.

I’m incredibly pleased with the direction “Dirk Gently” took, and I can only hope there will be a second (possibly longer) series.  It’s shown that it can exist episodically and has room to grow without getting stale.  Now let’s see it happen.

“Dirk Gently” is available on Region 2 DVD — no word on a R1 release or a second series yet.  Rated … well, actually there’s nothing too terribly offensive in it.  Step it up, guys, you’re on BBC4.