The degree to which Douglas Adams fans enjoy Dirk Gently, currently making its U.S. debut on DVD via Acorn Video, is likely to be directly related to how well they manage their expectations. The two-disc set includes all four one-hour episodes of the short-lived UK series, which stars Stephen Mangan from Showtime’s Episodes as the title character, a “holistic detective” whose unconventional investigatory style is based, as he explains it, on “an almost unswerving belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” Following that logic, Dirk believes he can approach a case from virtually any starting point, since it inevitably will lead him to the solution for which he is searching – which explains why, in the series pilot, he starts out searching for an old lady’s missing cat and gets entangled in a double murder case.
Adams wrote two Gently novels, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and was working on a third (The Salmon of Doubt) when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2001 at age 49. Since these books, like his earlier best-seller The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, deal with such complex ideas and improbable, largely unfilmable plot bedazzlements, screenwriter Howard Overman sensibly opted to lift certain characters and situations from the Gently novels and build a similarly themed series around them.
For the most part, it works. Mangan has a tendency to mug too much, especially when the writing gets a little thin, as it does from time to time in this series, but mostly he makes a genial enough Gently (it helps that Dirk drives most of the people around him insane with his self-absorption, so we’re allowed to find him irritating, too). The smartest bit of casting finds rising British comedy star Darren Boyd (Spy) as Dirk’s hapless assistant/partner Richard MacDuff, the frequent target of the sleuth’s most outlandish demands. Helen Baxendale, who played Ross’s English fiancée Emily in several episodes of Friends, turns up here as Richard’s girlfriend, Susan, while Jason Watkins, the first-season villain in BBC America’s original UK version of Being Human, recurs as Detective Inspector Gilks, who regards Gently with barely concealed contempt.
In sum, Dirk Gently is likely to appeal to Adams fans, as long as they don’t expect all of the author’s incomparable wit, charm and originality to make the transfer to this new medium. You have to go back to the books themselves to fully understand why Adams’ sudden death at such an obscenely early age left his admirers feeling so bereft. But Dirk Gently does an admirable job of capturing the underlying spirit of Adams’ books.
Also, if you want to see more of Darren Boyd – and really, you should – Hulu Plus has the entire two-season run of Spy (which currently is being adapted for American television) available for streaming.
Orphan Black, a very promising new thriller premiering tonight on BBC America, opens with Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), a young woman with a working-class British accent and a punk attitude, on an urban subway platform, engaged in a heated cellphone argument. In just a bit, we’re going to start to piece together her story: Sarah grew up in English orphanage and bounced around from one home to another until she and her foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris), were adopted by a “Mrs. S.” (Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Tudors), who brought her charges as teenagers to North America, for to-be-determined reasons. Since then, Sarah has given birth out of wedlock to a daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), and the testy phone conversation is, in fact, with Mrs. S. over visitation rights.
Soon, however, our attention shifts to another slender brunette nearby, who slowly, almost ritualistically, begins taking off her outer garments and placing them neatly on the concrete platform with her handbag and shoes. As she turns, Sarah is stunned to notice the woman is her doppelganger, who gives her a brief, sad glance just before she hurls herself into the path of an onrushing train.
In the ensuing pandemonium, Sarah furtively snatches the victim’s handbag and flees. Discovering that her ill-fated double, Beth, had a well-stuffed bank account, Sarah – a petty criminal who rarely thinks in the long term – decides to adopt Beth’s identity long enough to empty that account, then grab Kira and flee for parts unknown. That rash decision swiftly sends Sarah down the rabbit hole, as she discovers to her dismay that Beth was a cop under investigation for shooting a civilian. Beth also had what appears to be a turbulent relationship with her boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce, As the World Turns), as well as a safety deposit box that holds the birth certificates of a number of other young women from around the world … women with the same face as Sarah and Beth.
Beyond that, we have to stray into serious “spoiler” territory, so suffice it to say that this clever new mindbender appears to be splendidly constructed and executed, at least based on the four episodes BBC America provided for review. Sarah, still posing as Beth, keeps stumbling upon more and more riddles and enigmas, yet the scripts maintain a striking clarity so we don’t get hopelessly lost. We may not know where the story ultimately is going, yet we generally know at any given point what is going on in Sarah’s mind.
While Orphan Black is fairly dark, it’s leavened with humor, chiefly through the character of the flamboyant Felix, but also as these identical women start to interact and cover for each other in various dangerous situations. Of course, it helps immeasurably that Maslany, whose work I’ve never encountered before, is quite the chameleon, deftly slipping between these multiple characters clearly delineated by accent, hairstyle, attitude and even degrees of sanity. It’s quite a showcase performance, abetted by state-of-the-art special effects so transparent that when we see a scene with three Maslanys in a room together, it looks very credibly like three separate women interacting.
High-concept shows like this one are a risky business, and Orphan Black may well fall apart as the complicated story unfolds, but based on the first four hours, I can recommend it very highly for fans of this genre.