Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is “for fans for whom Douglas Adams is a god”

The star and producer of Dirk Gently on taking the Holistic Detective to the US and staying true to DNA

After finishing up in the US, BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has hit Netflix, allowing us here in the UK and fans around the world to find out whether Max Landis’ take on Douglas Adams’ beloved creation is up to scratch. It is such a relief to report that it most certainly is: clever, odd, and funny, with some truly terrific performances.

This latest adaptation finds Dirk (beautifully played by The History Boys‘ Samuel Barnett) in the midst of a mystery across the Atlantic with a reluctant new sidekick in the form of Elijah Wood’s recently unemployed Todd Brotzman. There are also frustrated government agents, perplexed cops, a four-man anarchist group called the Rowdy 3, some extremely sinister bald weirdos, and a holistic assassin named Bart (the superb Fiona Dourif). Oh, and a Corgi. In the first episode alone there’s at least one dead body, some gunplay, a machete chase, and pizza.

“I was really blown away by it,” enthuses Barnett. “And I’m not just saying that, I really was, because I only received 11 pages of the script when I first read it for my audition because they were keeping it secret. So, I read 11 pages, which was three scenes, and I was like, ‘I haven’t read anything this witty, funny, original, crazy-dramatic for a long time.’ And then when I actually got to read episodes 1 and 2 I was mesmerised and intrigued and I had so many questions!”

“Every single character could be in their own TV show. It’s one of those shows where you come in in the middle of a mystery. It’s not like things start out nice and then something happens. Something has already happened so you’re thrown right into the middle of it, and then as it goes along these seemingly utterly disconnected, tangential, disparate characters and plotlines all start to converge.”

Dirk Gently 104, "Watkin", Day 14 of 15, July 13, 2016, Burnaby, BC, Canada

“You can see in Max’s writing that Douglas in an influence,” explains Executive Producer Arvind Ethan David. “He’s in that tradition of mashing together hard genres, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, with comedy, which is the thing that Douglas pretty much did first. He said ‘You can mash comedy and science fiction together and come up with something interesting,’ and Max is very much in that tradition. So when this came round he was the only person I called.”

If you’re wondering what the holistic detective is doing in the States, David explains that this Dirk Gently isn’t an adaptation of any one specific book. Instead, it takes the character on a brand new journey that, in a way, picks up where the unfinished third novel left off. “In the third novel, Dirk gets a phone call from someone who he never meets and gets told to come to America,” he tells us. “So we felt entirely comfortable in telling our version of the third Dirk Gently adventure. Because we’re not adapting the books. In our version, some version of the books has happened, Dirk has done the thing with the electric monk and the sofa, and this is his third adventure.

“I think Dirk Gently is in the tradition of the great British comic creations,” he continues. “He’s in the Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves and Wooster, Rumpole tradition, he’s so entirely British in his eccentricity, his love of language, his curiosity, his amateur gentleman approach to the world. Obviously he’s not Victorian, but there is obviously some of that quintessentially British comic tradition from which Douglas came. There’s a straight line from Oscar Wilde to PG Wodehouse to Douglas Adams. And so there’s something very fun about taking that character and putting him in America and putting him next to Elijah Wood’s character Todd. There was just so much comedy in taking Sam Barnett, this great British actor who does this extraordinarily well, taking this whirlwind of British madness and throwing him against some good, down-to-earth Americans and seeing what they would make of him.”

Dirk Gently _ Season 1, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Bettina Strauss/BBCA

As for Barnett, the challenge of playing a character so well-known and well-loved was both an exciting challenge and a daunting prospect.

“Well, I was nervous, you know, because Douglas Adams is a legend and there are real die-hard fans out there, and I was extremely nervous to be taking on a literary figure that people love,’ he remembers. “I was nervous about letting people down, I guess, but the response has been amazing.”

“I do remember filming the first scene on the first day and just feeling very insecure and thinking ‘Oh, is this right? Am I doing this right? Am I getting the character right? Is the relationship with Elijah’s character correct?'” he continues. “And it’s so well written and well-structured that I just had this feeling that, if I could just hold my nerve and trust the script and do each scene just as it was written, that, when the whole thing was put together, it would look congruent and it absolutely does.”

“I feel I’ve got a real grip on Dirk now. He is hard to pin down. There is a lot more to him than the joyful, optimistic, slightly clownish, almost buffoon that he can come across as in Episode 1. It gets a lot deeper and darker for him, and with Elijah’s character Todd gets a lot deeper and there’s a lot of conflict, but there’s also a lot of connection and kindness between them that comes out. So it’s a show that really develops.”

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Indeed it does. We don’t want to say too much in case you’ve not finished Season One yet, but this is a highly entertaining and addictive show and we’re very, very glad that a second season has been confirmed. And we’re not alone. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency found its fandom very quickly and the reactions to the show have been extremely positive.

“Yeah, it’s been kind of wonderful,” agrees David. “The ratings are strong, we’ve been trending on Twitter, and my god, from the first episode there was fan art, there were fan-made action figures, conspiracy theories, people drawing graphs trying to explain the plot, people doing videos. The Guardian called us Sherlock for the stoner generation and I think that’s probably about right, although I would say for the millennial generation! I think somehow we’ve plugged into our people. We’re plugged into the fanboys and fangirls for whom Douglas was always a god. Hopefully once they were in, they saw it was a show made for them and by them.”

“We weren’t trying to make a show for everyone,” he continues. “I don’t know how to do that, and it’s Douglas Adams, you have to treat it how it is, to be true to the DNA. Taking it back to the UK is so important to me, and not least because of Douglas. I think the British fans will probably be a bit more demanding in some ways because I think they’ll have the most expectation of what it is or what it should be because of the connection to Douglas Adams and also because of the last series, and so I hope they feel that we’ve done him and their fandom proud.”

“Max Landis very cleverly says you can’t adapt Douglas Adams,” concludes Barnett. “You cannot do a straight adaptation, it just doesn’t seem to work. Because so much of the charm of his writing is in his observations, in his wit, in the way he looks at life, and how do you dramatise that for TV? So what Max has done is he’s taken many of the plot devices, character things, many of the set-ups that Douglas uses but he’s also injected a heck of a lot of heart and soul and drama and conflict and comedy and depth into these characters and into these plotlines.”

“He’s kept the integrity of Dirk’s world and the way Dirk thinks and all that kind of interconnectedness and going with the flow of the universe. That is Dirk’s special power that other people don’t have. He is connected to the universe in a way that other people aren’t and it is a very lonely burden for him, and yet he is one of the most joyous characters I’ve ever had the fortune to play. I think Max has captured all of that.”

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is now streaming on Netflix. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.