No, Surreally: On the Strangely Comforting Absurdity of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

TV Features Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
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No, Surreally: On the Strangely Comforting Absurdity of <i>Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency</i>

In the second ever episode of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, there is a hostage exchange. It takes place at midnight. It’s on a bridge. A mysterious man (Aaron Douglas) who has spent the better part of two episodes muttering to himself suspiciously—and who also seems to have kidnapped local teen heiress Lydia Spring—is on one side of the bridge, gun to the head of a woman in a welder’s mask. Holistic detective Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett) and his barely willing assistant Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood) are on the other, Todd holding tight to a corgi.

Here, briefly, and with truly restrained punctuation, is a transcript of their negotiations:

Mysterious man: Give me the dog, or I kill her!
Dirk: Give us the her, or we’ll throw the dog off the bridge!
MM (disconcerted): Why did you attack us?
Dirk: We didn’t! How do you know who we are?
MM: We don’t! Where’s the kitten?
Todd: What kitten!?
Dirk: Who’s that woman??
MM: You don’t know her?!
Dirk: Do YOU??
MM: Why did you burn my house down!!?
Todd: Where’s Lydia?
MM: She’s not here! Bring me the dog!
Dirk: Why do you want it?
MM: Why did you take it??
Todd (aggrieved): We don’t know!
MM: Why did you kill Patrick Spring?
Todd: We didn’t!!
Dirk: Did YOU???

You will be forgiven if, in reading this gunned-up Who’s On First? routine—which first aired in October, 2016, two weeks before reality clocked us with its own dark slapstick suckerpunch—you felt, absurdly, seen.

You will be forgiven if, in watching the steampunk, electric soul-swapping mania Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency Season One, and the horror-house, magic universe-swapping mania of Season Two (currently airing on BBC America), you feel, absurdly, comforted.

You will be forgiven if, when Dirk marvels to an increasingly aggrieved and confounded Todd that Everything is connected, I don’t know how until the end, but it is, and You’re part of this case now, whether you want to be or not. You’re complicit, and will find yourself investigating even if you don’t mean to—and when Dirk’s bloody counterpart, Bart (Fiona Dourif), she of the loping stride and gory string of random, holistic assassinations, parallels these thoughts to her own aggrieved and unwilling assistant, Ken (Mpho Koaho), explaining how Everything is chaos, but it’s synchronized—you think, “Actually, yeah, that seems about right.”

Because actually, yeah. That does seem about right. As disorienting and chaotic and bloody (and bloodily) unlikely as Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is, as completely unmoored and unmooring its nearly context-free stories about anarchist energy vampires who roll around in a tagged-up van ready to leap out and smash up cars and apartments and entire black-ops brigades, about dogs who are girls and kittens who are sharks, about nerve disorders that make you believe your hands are on fire or a train has sliced your skin down the entirety of your body, about abandoned houses with fun slides to a parallel hell dimension with a stabbed and bleeding table and a wandering literal purple people eater, about abandoned hotel rooms with bathtub portals to a parallel bizarro dimension with pink-haired royalty and knights who duel with sword-sized scissors—as utterly buffaloing as every one of Dirk Gently’s constituent elements is, there is something crashingly comforting in their collective absurdity. Reality these days is rarely any less buffaloing, and as in Dirk’s world, so it is in ours: it is impossible to see how everything is connected until everything, finally, connects. But our finally is forever postponed by the freshest hell of a news cycle, and may take generations to satisfyingly resolve.

In Dirk’s world, the disorienting chaos may be turned up to eleventy-eleven, but it at least resolves in a single, short season.

Of course, so much protracted chaos wouldn’t succeed as entertainment, let alone as catharsis, if it wasn’t executed well. Where medical and legal dramas only have to contend with a sliver of their possible audience being expert enough to call shenanigans on their portrayals of very specific experiences, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has to contend with the fact that its subject is everyday people being overwhelmed by a compounding breakage of logic with reality, an experience in which its entire audience is now expert. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency straddles the literary border between uncanny and grotesque—and its sherbet-on-black palette, just off-kilter camera angles, and barking, discordant music bear that out—but If Todd, Ken, insecure security expert Farah (Jade Eshete), overmatched black ops Sgt. Hugo Friedkin (Dustin Milligan), dogged (but also overmatched) Missing Persons Detectives Estevez and Zimmerfield (Neil Brown, Jr. and Richard Schiff), bumblingly enthusiastic Montana Sheriff Sherlock Hobbs (Tyler Labine), sadsack villain mom Suzie Boreton (Amanda Walsh) and, most importantly, Todd’s pissed-off, nerve-disorder-wracked, vision-having sister, Amanda (Hannah Marks), couldn’t sell their experiences of the uncanny and grotesque as wholly human as any of ours here IRL, the show would fall flat.

But they do sell it, and the higher pitched the chaos in the show sounds, the more grounded the cast’s actions and reactions feel. Todd informing Dirk in no uncertain terms, “I am not available for sidekicking. I am my own messed-up person with my own messed-up problems”? Yes, that is a familiar feeling. Todd’s landlord bellowing “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS NEW SHIT!” as the four members of the Rowdy 3 barrel through his property with bats and endless screaming? Hi, it me, every day. Amanda calling Todd to take small pride over her fortitude to leave her house and get groceries, even though her every waking moment is ripe to become a nightmare? Relatable! from Detective Estevez’s “I hate everything about this,” said as he’s finally clued in on the details of what has been rapidly destroying his life and career? Yes, accurate, me too, always. And finally Dirk, marveling in the middle of that taut hostage negotiation at the revelation that he burned their unknown antagonist’s house down, as Todd looks on, horrified? Well, who among us has not had cause lately to marvel/look on, horrified, at the revelation that some unconscious action of ours burned, say, a whole country’s figurative house down?

Everything is connected. Everything is chaos. But it is synchronized. And if we take a page from Dirk’s book and take ownership over our actions as the flow of the universe guides us through even the most unimaginable connections—as Todd and Ken and Farah and Amanda have now, in Season Two, done—well, just maybe we can find at least a few resolutions that beat the next news cycle.

Or, as Dirk more optimistically instructs Todd: “You have been making too many choices out of desperation for too long, that much is obvious. You’re backing yourself into a corner. Break the pattern. Take control of your life. The instant you take control, interesting things will happen.”

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on BBC America.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.