No spoilers other than what you can find in the basic descriptions for both shows.
At first glance, People of Earth and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency don’t look like they have much in common. Yet both shows capitalize on a very modern fascination with quirkiness. Irony abounds these days…to the point that people are ironic about being ironic. It’s almost a sickness. But People of Earth pulls the quirkiness off. I’m not so sure about Dirk Gently.
I was hesitant about watching People of Earth, especially since I don’t buy the basic premise, which involves aliens visiting the earth and abducting people. My skepticism about that aside, I’m sympathetic to people who believe that they’ve been abducted, because they’ve clearly got something going on. And I was afraid that the show was built around mocking these very people. Fortunately, it’s just the opposite. The series follows a support group for abductees, all of whom are rendered with great sensitivity.
I know what you’re thinking. Alien abduction stories are pretty depressing. Who wants to watch a show about being probed? But according to People of Earth, aliens aren’t nearly as horrifying as you’d assume. Some of them seem interested in just hanging out with us. What’s more, the aliens are where most of the laughs in this show are coming from. Who knew, for instance, that aliens had such crappy jobs? Since I once worked for Evil-Corp (my apologies for the Mr. Robot reference), I can sympathize with someone—even an alien—who’s stuck in a seemingly dead-end job where inefficiencies and unlikeable coworkers stymy all hope for workplace satisfaction.
As for the abductees on People of Earth, alien contact has completely changed how they see things. The alterations are profound. Now, as a viewer, this should be a little hard for me to take. Abduction is such a strange and (for me) unbelievable experience, that it should be difficult for me to relate to characters who base their (seemingly odd) behavior on the belief that they’ve been abducted. Instead, I find myself really feeling for them. Like me, the abductees are just trying to figure things out. The story’s compelling not because the abductees are different from me, but because we’re actually all the same. And the show doesn’t exploit the abductees’ suffering for the sake of nihilistic entertainment. There are a few laughs, but the writers aren’t doing that annoying thing where they pretend that they’re sharing an inside joke with the audience. In fact, a show that, on the surface, looks like it was designed for hipsters, has got way too much heart for a hipster audience.
The situation’s different when it comes to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. I know someone who thinks that Dirk’s a walking-talking icon of the modern hipster. That might be carrying things a bit too far, but the show definitely has an aura of “If you don’t understand what’s happening right now, it’s because you’re stupid.”
Fact: I enjoy mysteries.
Fact: I don’t like being strung along.
I watched Lost for a single season, and I’m still pissed about it. They got a whole season out of me. Since the series is all done and over with, I could go and find out if there ever was an explanation, but I won’t. They don’t deserve that much from me.
At the very least, a show should have to be upfront about what kind of genre it is. Is it sci-fi? Is it fantasy? Is it a more or less straightforward mystery grounded in this world? It’s not fair to the viewer if you won’t even give away that much.
Dirk Gently is all three. But it took me three episodes to figure that out. In Dirk Gently’s defense, the show does start answering some real questions by the fourth episode, so they’re already ahead of Lost.
There are probably some Douglas Adams readers who think I’m an idiot. Dirk Gently is based on Adams’ books, with which I’d be familiar were I not illiterate. Alas, my patience with literary forms of sci-fi/fantasy has grown increasingly limited as I’ve aged. I like to be given a fair chance to figure out what’s going on in a story, and in my opinion literary forms of sci-fi/fantasy just can’t do that. Seeing it on the screen gives you a lot more clues about the rules of the universe that the writer’s working in. So it’s probably a good thing that I’m seeing Dirk Gently on tv, because man, is it complicated. If I actually cared, I’d get a whiteboard and start taking notes, because I straight-up don’t understand how they’re making some of the connections they’re coming up with.
Dirk Gently is ostensibly a murder mystery with lots and lots of quirky people and strange happenings. Most of the time, the actors manage to pull off the quirkiness. But there are a few cringe-worthy examples where it’s obvious that they’re missing the high note. And peopling a story with too many quirky characters can be a mistake. The viewer gets so used to the eccentricity of it all that it ceases to arouse any interest or sympathy.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a few jokes and clever one-liners. I’m sure there are plenty of inside jokes and puns that I don’t even realize are there. Some viewers will think that’s a good thing.
And I do still care about a few of the characters.
But I also kind of don’t.
I’m going to keep watching Dirk Gently for the rest of this season. If the show wants me back next season though, it’s going to have to focus more on making the characters sympathetic instead of just clever and eccentric.
Conclusion: If you’ve only got time for one of these shows, I’d suggest People of Earth over Dirk Gently.
(Bonus: Each episode of People of Earth is only thirty minutes long compared to Dirk Gently’s sixty minutes.)
(P.S. The screaming you hear is all of the Douglas Adams’ fans running after me right now.)