A pre-emptive admission: I haven’t read any of the Dirk Gently books. Because of course I haven’t, if you’ve read any of my other articles you’ll appreciate that I’m barely literate to begin with. I also haven’t seen or heard the many other adaptations of Douglas Adams’ novels – I’m looking at the BBC America version entirely on its own merit.
‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’ (DGHDA) has a wonderful first season. None of it makes sense, even after the explanation of the plot in explicit detail. But despite that, each character’s journey makes perfect sense (or at least did to me). Indeed, the show itself seems to be about people finding their true identities despite the chaos and confusion around them, and becoming the best versions of themselves as a result.
I started off hating the titular character, whose uselessness and presumptuousness combine into a manifestation of all that is wrong with over-privileged people – except that by the end, I found him genuinely endearing. Similarly, Elijah Wood’s performance is marvelous as an initially endearing protagonist who we eventually learn is truly “a piece of shit”, in his sister’s words.
The entirety of the support cast is fantastic, as well, from Richard Schiff’s invariably skeptical detective to Aaron Douglas’ turn as the grouchy, rotund, corgi-owning antagonist (it should be noted that Douglas’ character Gordon Rimmer bears a strikingly similar voice to that of Mr Plinkett, which is almost certainly not an accident given that Max Landis, the creator of this show, appeared with the RedLetterMedia crew roughly a year before the release of DGHDA).
And don’t even get me started on Bart, the holistic assassin.
There isn’t much else I can say about the first season, except to say that if you try it, do so without too many hopes for an in-depth mystery. It’s almost entirely character-driven, but fortunately each character is engaging enough that it still manages to be an incredibly rewarding experience.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the show’s second season. The ultimate issue with it, I think, is that the first season’s strength was in letting us get to know so many different, memorable characters.
The second season’s weakness is that we’ve already gotten to know them, and they don’t do a good enough job of developing and growing from their Season One incarnations, particularly Ken, who doesn’t so much develop as face-heel turn into a fairly straightforward villain. And sadly, the new characters to which we are introduced are mostly forgettable.
That may seem like a subjective assessment, but that’s nothing compared to my primary complaint with Season Two, which is what I will call “The Parody Paradox.”
So, in Charlie Brooker’s 2015 series of ‘Weekly Wipe’, there were segments by Morgana Richardson in which she did impressions of both Russell Brand and a fictional Youtube personality in the annoying model of someone like PewDiePie, I can only presume. Now, Russell Brand is, to me, an incredibly annoying piece of human trash, and Richardson’s impression of him did what all good comedic impressions do – amped up all of his most annoying traits.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with Richardson’s performance – she’s a great comic actor – but I quickly learned to skip past these segments because they were taking all of the worst traits of people who already annoy me and condensing them into compact little sketches. Which means that whilst I can appreciate the humour and the insight, the sketches themselves are unbearable.
The issue with satire and parody is that if it doesn’t go beyond imitation – if it never breaks free of the thing it’s trying to send up – then it’s going to struggle to function as entertainment. Which I think is why ‘Galaxy Quest’ is one of those iconic pieces of parody: it doesn’t just imitate Star Trek, it actually pursues a story of its own, with characters that exist outside of the satire, and so manages to be a lot more fulfilling.
Getting back to DGHDA’s second season, one of the big weaknesses for me was the decision to hang so much of the story around a child’s make-believe fantasy world come to life. It manifests as, in essence, a parody of the fantasy serials best exemplified by ‘The Legend of the Seeker’, so derivative and mediocre and yet trying so hard to be interesting, mostly by filling themselves with adolescent indulgence.
As Season Two of ‘Dirk Gently’ progresses, more and more of the story takes place in this parody-esque fantasy realm. Amanda finds herself in this wacky land of strange creatures, and ends up being trained in mystical arts. But her journey is all so much waffle and pseudo-philosophy, spelled out for the audience in a completely po-faced manner by Hannah Marks, who was excellent in Season One and is sadly wasted here.
All of this is entirely subjective, however. If you want to see a send-up of the overly serious and yet inherently ridiculous TV fantasy drama, then you may love every moment. But I don’t, particularly, and it made it very difficult for me to enjoy the second season as much as I did the first.
Season One had a wonderful theme of the absurd breaking its way into the gritty, real world, and of highlighting the fact that life often doesn’t make sense, and you just have to get through it all and remember what, or rather who, is really important to you. Season Two seemed to just be about drowning the story in as much absurdity as is feasible, and never really managed to get its head above water.
You may have noticed that I kept referring to “Season One” and “Season Two” above, and that was intentional. There is an excellent AV Club article about the mutation of TV shows in the Netflix age into what are essentially just long films, focusing primarily on the incredible ‘The End of the Fucking World’ (which you absolutely must watch at some point in your life).
This results in the particular peculiarity of DGHDA. Season One ends on a cliffhanger, but it’s a “forced cliffhanger” – the story had already been tied up quite adequately, and the characters are simply subjected to a short sequence of events that occur entirely within the epilogue and pretty much independently of anything that occurs during the season. Indeed, the epilogue of Season One could quite easily have been the cold-open of Season Two, and its inclusion felt more like a cynical attempt to build interest for the second season.
The fact that Season One had a mostly complete story (even Todd and Amanda’s resolution seemed fitting, despite the sense of “unfinished business”) separates DGHDA from the likes of ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘The Expanse’, or ‘Battlestar Galactica’. Where those shows have narratives lasting multiple seasons, DGHDA’s single-season package made it feel a lot more like a long film. Which consequently left Season Two feeling like a sequel.
And, like many bad sequels, the approach was to amp things up and try to outdo the original. With no story to be continued, bar the almost-standalone epilogue, Season Two seemed to fall into a “bigger is better” idea-trap and elevated its production costs without elevating its narrative.
The same happened, in part, with ‘Daredevil’ Season Two, which had an excellent, profound first half, introducing The Punisher, but which sadly devolved into a “We need to amp it up!” mindset in the second half, with the addition of The Hand and all of their unnecessary shenanigans.
I think this mindset could become worryingly pervasive as more and more TV productions are conceived as single-season “proof-of-concept” arcs for the binge-watching audience, with sequels forced as a result of commercial success.
Creating a satisfying sequel to a great story is incredibly difficult, and consequently very rare. That never used to be an issue for TV, which didn’t have to produce sequels but merely continuations. Indeed, the issue used to be that shows would start out badly and only truly “find themselves” once they had refined the formula.
Now, TV shows are starting out great, and having to try and repeat that greatness under threat of failure, and that’s how you get the likes of bloody ‘Die Hard 2’ and ‘The Matrix: Re-whatevered’. Sure, you might get lucky and manage an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ or ‘Aliens’, but you’re far, far more likely to pinch out a ‘The Lost World’ or ‘Speed 2’.