It's been awhile since the pilot of Dirk Gently aired on BBC4 in 2010, but a three-part series has finally arrived—again chasing the coattails of BBC1's Sherlock, which it resembles in a few ways. The primary difference is that Dirk's intelligence and theories are always in question, given his crazy belief that everything is interconnected, and the show is much quirkier—rather like an earthbound Doctor Who. But while the promise of a silly detective show, based on characters created by author Douglas Adams (The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy), influenced by Who and Sherlock, will have most geeks salivating with anticipation... Dirk Gently doesn't quite deliver.
I'm not entirely sure what's missing, but perhaps it's because both Dirk (Stephen Mangan) and his sidekick Macduff (Darren Boyd) aren't as well-written as they perhaps need to be. Or that it's hard to care about plots that are designed to be so trivial and nonsensical. Mangan and Boyd do great work with what they're given, and both characters are fun to watch interact, but there's not really much going on deep down. And with 95% of this episode concentrating on sheer plot, there was never really any lasting opportunities to explore them as people, either individually or as a crime-fighting duo.
Adapted by writer Howard Overman, Dirk Gently appears to scratch his plotting itch; perhaps in the same way his breakthrough hit Misfits scratches his dialogue itch. Dirk Gently tears along at a good pace, and this opening episode's storyline was suitably nutty—with Dirk having to solve the murder of someone who believed he was the target of an assassin from the Pentagon, and a paranoid man called Oliver Reynolds (Paul Ritter) who thinks the online horoscope he's emailed is accurately predicting his future. It's undeniably good fun watching Mangan spin around crime scenes (wearing washing-up gloves to prevent contaminating crime scenes, or using old-school techniques like shading notepads for clues), and Boyd provides a likable counterpoint as the skeptical Macduff, who somehow manages to avoid just playing second fiddle. Although there's always a worry the two characters and their relationship could stagnate, because, as I mentioned above, there's not really a whole lot of depth to either of them. Hopefully that will come in time.
Knowing this is achieved on a BBC4 budget is a remarkable fact, because it isn't significantly "cheap" to look at. There are moments and sequences where you can imagine a BBC1 production doing a slicker job, or just having the money to go to town in a few areas, but in some ways the lack of money helps keep the story strong and the pace fast. Necessity is the mother of invention.
However, I'm not sure a full hour is suitable for a show like this. It's a common complaint of mine with all BBC advert-less drama, but 45-minutes would be far preferable. Given this show's comedy leaning, I could even imagine it making a breezier half-hour. There were times during this episode, notably in the second half, where you felt things starting to get repetitive... meaning the resolution of the case was never anything I really cared about. It was often more pleasurable to watch various things slot together, and the fact Dirk Gently revolves around "randomness" and "coincidences" gives the show an enjoyable feel as the bigger picture starts to form. Fictional mysteries are built on writers working backwards, which gives the illusion of cleverness because the audience only see things linearly from beginning to end, and Dirk Gently particularly benefits from having lots of small instances where things are setup and paid off.
Overall, Dirk Gently is a pleasant way to spend an hour, and much better than Overman's similarly-toned Vexed, but it desperately needs to make the characters rise above their archetypes, and ensure each week's case feels like it matters. Without those two things, the show starts to bumble around and slowly loses your full attention. Just count your blessings Mangan and Boyd are the leads, because less capable actors would probably sink this show. For now, there's enough spark to keep me watching. I just hope Dirk Gently develops into something more substantial to sink your teeth into as a viewer.
written by Howard Overman / directed by Tom Shankland / 5 March 2012 / BBC Four