Thursday, September 19, 2013

Culture Shock 09.19.13: 'Dirk Gently' brings Douglas Adams' holistic detective to life

Darren Boyd, left, Stephen Mangan, and Helen Baxendale.
In screenwriting, you have what are called the "A story" and the "B story."

The A story is the main narrative. The B story is secondary, often dealing with supporting characters. While the two parallel stories may be linked thematically, they otherwise don't usually have a lot to do with one another.

For instance, an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" might focus on Capt. Picard averting a diplomatic crisis between water-breathing fish people and a race of sentient sea sponges. Meanwhile, the B plot involves Data humorously failing to stop his cat Spot from marking territory in the transporter room.

Yet, in other instances, the A and B stories collide. There is that occasional "CSI" episode in which the primary case and the secondary case intersect, and the lead CSIs have that eureka moment where they realize they're working the same case.

Enter Dirk Gently. Dirk is a holistic detective. For him, every case is the same case because everything — and he means everything — is fundamentally connected. That's why he has no problem billing a client for a new refrigerator; everything is relevant to the case, so everything is a business expense. Also, Dirk is a bit of a jerk.

"Dirk Gently" is one of those shows that was just too good for television. It was too good even for British television. So, it ran only for four brilliant episodes, but now all four are on DVD.

The show is loosely based on two novels by "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" author Douglas Adams, "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and "The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul." It doesn't adapt either of them so much as mine them for ideas.

Dirk (Stephen Mangan of Showtime's "Episodes") is slovenly, insolvent and abrasive. He refuses to pay his secretary on the theory that if he does, she'll stop showing up for work in hopes of getting paid.

He also is locked in a battle of wills with his cleaning lady.

While working on a case involving an old lady's lost cat, Dirk chances upon university acquaintance Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd of "Spy"). Except Dirk doesn't believe in chance because everything is interconnected, just as the beating wings of a butterfly in the Amazon can influence the path of a hurricane in the Atlantic. Convinced it could be the key to the missing cat, Dirk takes on the case of MacDuff's girlfriend (Lisa Jackson), who may or may not be having an affair.

Needless to say, the cases are related, in improbable if not impossible ways, and by the first episode's conclusion, MacDuff has signed on as Dirk's partner/assistant/human ATM.

With cases that involve time travel, conspiracies, robots and computers with artificial intelligence, "Dirk Gently" treads ground between sci-fi and detective series, and it plays cleverly with the cliches and conventions of both. Series creator Howard Overman ("Misfits") does an excellent job of turning Adams' novels into a TV show that stands on its own.

Mangan brings manic intensity to the role of Dirk, who is at his most likable when he's being his most horrid. Conning people comes second nature to him, but as MacDuff grudgingly admits, Dirk is a brilliant detective.

Boyd's MacDuff is the perfect straight man for Dirk. Exasperated, resigned and abused, MacDuff sticks with Dirk only because he thinks, somehow, in ways that aren't entirely obvious, that he and Dirk are doing good.

Yet ironically, because everything is connected, the cases Dirk solves are usually his fault somehow in the first place. That's the show's ultimate commentary on the detective genre: Cases exist solely for detectives to solve. That's Dirk's greatest con of all, and it's on us, but it's fun to watch.

No comments:

Post a Comment