Saturday, 24 March 2012

Dirk Gently: Gentle comedy, but perhaps too gentle

Following on from 2011's pilot episode from BBC4, the first series of three episodes detailing the adventures of the holistic detective was entertaining, although not as entertaining as it could have been.

The problem that many Douglas Adams fans focussed on is that the show had little to do with the books. Apart from mentioning character names and minor plotting points from the two and a quarter completed novels, there's little in the series that actually comes from the novels. I didn't view that as an issue as a BBC4 show doesn’t have the budget to tackle the stories properly. More importantly, the format's premise is that Dirk Gently is a detective who solves crimes based on the fundamental interconnectedness of everything. So to my mind even if the tv stories have nothing to do with the novels, they will still, in some way that may not be apparent yet, be connected!

For me the main problem is that the show is unsure what it wants to be, which is sad as it seems obvious that it ought to pitch itself somewhere between Dr Who and Sherlock. Viewers who find Dr Who's fantasy too fantastic can take solace in Gently's grounded fantasy while those who find Sherlock not fantastic enough can enjoy a show that can incorporate science fiction ideas. Two of the four episodes took that approach (the pilot and the middle episode of series 1) and they worked excellently, while the other two were less successful and came over as a very low budget Sherlock featuring ideas that were too whimsical for that series. In fact even the theme tune sounds like something composed and then rejected for Sherlock.

The pilot featured missing cats and time-travel, which was in the spirit of the novels, while the middle episode concerned robots, artificial intelligence, and body-swapping. The resulting stories were exactly what the show should be, namely a comic, science fiction detective series in which the solution to the murder plot involves an element that a reality-based detective series could never use. Sadly the other two stories prove this point as they could have been told in any other detective show as they centred on such disparate elements as hired guns from the Pentagon, nefarious cleaners, horoscopes and stalkers.

Despite that, all the episodes feature good running jokes (along with plenty of actual running when the story needs padding) concerning Dirk's money troubles, his amoral attitude, his downtrodden side-kick, his downtrodden secretary, and his downtrodden office. Better still, the science fiction episodes have better acting with Helen Baxendale appearing as Dirk's sidekick's girlfriend, and in the middle episode there's some genuine character development and emotion with Dirk enjoying a touching love interest.

I hope the show gets commissioned for a second series as the first series shows a lot of promise. But I hope the makers realize that the unique quality the show can provide for the tv detective genre lies with the fantastic and not with the mundane.

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