Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett play an odd couple of unusual sleuths in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Crime shows are called “procedurals” for a reason. Most TV sleuths stick to time-honoured procedures, playing it “by the book” to crack a case.
Then we have Dirk Gently, a self-proclaimed holistic detective who does not really detect. Or find clues. Or ever really solve cases in the traditional manner.
This fast-talking, rude and presumptuous proprietor of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – a wonderfully weird comedy-drama available on Netflix from Sunday, December 11 – relies instead upon strange, psychic abilities that enable him to sense tangential relationships and the interconnectedness of all things. In other words, he lets the universe find the clues.
The eight-part TV series is based on the 1987 comic novel of the same name by the late British author Douglas Adams (best known for his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series), and its 1988 sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.
For the foppishly dressed Dirk, played with almost Pythonesque silliness by British actor Samuel Barnett (Penny Dreadful), his abilities have condemned him to a lonely life devoid of human connection.
Things change, however, the day he encounters bellhop Todd Brotzman, one of life’s losers, played with sad-sack misery by American actor Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings, Wilfred). Dirk arrives at the hotel where he works one day to discover a murdered millionaire in a penthouse.
The game is afoot – but for Todd, who reluctantly winds up playing Watson to Dirk’s Sherlock, what follows is more like a chaotic maze of corpses, cops, traps, cult, assassins, vampires, lottery tickets, kittens and corgis, as metaphysics complicates the case.
“Dirk thinks that he’s a brilliant detective, but he’s the worst detective, ever,” says Barnett, 36.
“He does have this particular skill, which I suppose you might call a really bad superpower because it’s just not very helpful.
“He is able to sense the connections between things and he’s nearly always right, but the problem is that he never knows what to do with any of those messages that he receives from the universe, so he just acts on things and gets himself into terrible trouble, all the time.”
For Wood, a return to television after four years starring in the surreal comedy Wilfred, from 2011 to 2014, was not his plan.
“But I read the script and I couldn’t deny it – it was unlike anything I’d ever read before, or seen anything like it on television,” says the 35-year-old.
“It was so many things at once, both really funny, very violent. It had these science-fiction elements. It was quite dramatic. The characters were very well drawn ... it just had all of these things that I’d never seen mashed together in this way before. I found it very exciting.”
Cambridge-born Adams – who died of a heart attack at the age of 49 in 2001 – might have been surprised to see his Dirk Gently stories transplanted from England to Seattle. Purists might also protest that many of the characters in the show were created by executive producer and scriptwriter Max Landis (Chronicle), not Adams.
“This has really been a concern of mine, obviously, that for anyone who knows Douglas Adams’s work and is a fan of the books, they might be ... surprised, put off even, by what has been done with them,” says Barnett.
“For me, I adored the books when I read them, but then I read the scripts and realised, you know what? The essence of Dirk is really there. What Max has done, quite brilliantly, I think, is put a lot of Easter eggs in all the episodes where, if you know the original, you’ll go, ‘Ah, that’s directly from the books.’ You get a sense of Dirk’s history with cases.”
One of the most interesting characters in the new series is Bartine “Bart” Curlish, a homicidal, deranged, fearless and seemingly indestructible holistic assassin out to kill Dirk. She is played with feral energy by Fiona Dourif, best known for her role as Nica Pierce in the Child’s Play movies.
“How I think of Bart is that she’s actually just this lonely girl who happens to have been born as the Delete key of the universe,” says Dourif. While Dirk himself might not seem like such a sympathetic character, Barnett takes a different view.
“All of the execs on this show lovingly keep describing [Dirk] as obnoxious and annoying, but I think Dirk’s a wonderful, wide-eyed, innocent character,” he says.
“I can see, from all of the other characters’ points of view, that Dirk is quite crazy-making – but he’s just a mass of feeling, intuition and gut reaction.”
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is available on Netflix from Sunday, Decmeber 11