Friday, 16 March 2012

Musings on 'Dirk Gently' and 'Sherlock'

I've just watched the second episode of Dirk Gently on BBC iPlayer. The pilot was great, as I remember it (it was screened in December 2010), and the first episode was fun, if silly. But with the second episode came the introduction of Dirk's partner's girlfriend, played by Helen Baxendale, and that's where the problems begin.

Susan's main function in this episode, unsurprisingly, is to throw the relationship between Dirk and Macduff into relief. She gets to be present because the pair are working on a case in Cambridge, and Susan happens to be applying for a job in Cambridge. Here's their conversation before her interview.

Susan: I really need to get ready for my interview - are you sure you're alright?
(they are interrupted by plot stuff, which concludes with an automated voice reading out Macduff's emails)
Computer: Hello Richard. Only Mum. Just a short note to remind you about lunch on Sunday. Do bring Susan if you feel you must.
Susan: I'll see you later.
Macduff: No - Susan - ! 
(she walks away but he is detained by Dirk and catches her up a bit later)
Macduff: Susan! Hey. I'm sorry. Don't - you know my mum, she doesn't mean that.
Susan: It's a relief to be honest. Now I don't have to feel guilty about not liking her
Macduff: You don't like my mum?
Susan: Oh Richard, nobody likes your mother.
Macduff: I suppose she is uniquely unlikeable.
Susan: Are you going to wish me luck for my interview then?
Macduff: Yes. Good luck for your interview.
Susan: You don't mean that, do you.
Macduff: I don't want to move to Cambridge Susan, I don't, I really don't. I'm sorry. Dirk, and the Agency, you know I can't, I can't just walk away. I'm - look, ignore me, forget it, don't think about that now. Listen, hey! You might not even get the job!
Susan: Thanks.
Macduff: Good luck. (kisses her)

Susan is offered the job. When she presses Macduff, this is how he responds:

Susan: Richard, wait! They need an answer about the job by the end of the day. That's if we haven't both been arrested by then.
Macduff: I don't want to move to Cambridge.
(break of a few scenes)
Macduff: I want to be Dirk's partner - I want to make the agency work.
Susan: Richard, he will never treat you as his partner.
Macduff: It's just how he is. Despite everything he does and as difficult as it is to believe, I think he might be brilliant. (pause) Don't ever let him know I said that. And I think that, deep down I think he needs me even though he'd rather die than admit it. (pause) Please don't make me choose. 

So there's plenty of good stuff to choose from here. Firstly, the cliched dislike between a man's girlfriend and his mother, which inevitably pits them against one another as competitors for the man's affection and respect. It is played for laughs here, as it almost always is (those silly women and their jealousy!), and here we also have the knowledge, suggested by Susan and confirmed by Macduff, that Macduff's mother is "uniquely unlikeable" (as indeed we can see for ourselves, thanks to her unpleasant email to her son). She's a mother-in-law joke waiting to happen.

But my main issue with their relationship, as portrayed by these few short scenes, is what is revealed by Macduff's attitude to Susan's potential job. We aren't shown much more than this, so we can't know if they have already discussed it and come to the conclusion that if Susan gets the job, they both must move to Cambridge. But I'm going to assume it, based on the fact that neither of them brings up the possibility of him staying in London without her, or them staying in London together and her commuting to Cambridge (an unlikely solution, granted). We can assume that this is the only possible option if Susan takes the job - and, indeed, this is necessarily the case if the point of this whole story-line is to endanger the working relationship of Macduff and Dirk, which is how I see it. Susan's sole purpose in this episode is to bring to a head the tension between Dirk and Macduff, who Dirk treats pretty badly, insisting on calling him his "assistant", giving him the most mundane / unpleasant / dangerous tasks and generally taking him for granted. Macduff needs another character to express this to, and who better than a pseudo-girlfriend who can act as a catalyst for their troubled working relationship?

Throughout the rest of the episode Dirk apparently assumes that Macduff will be leaving him, and at the end, back in their London offices, he seems surprised when he sees Susan and Macduff, saying "shouldn't you two be halfway up the M11 en route to your new life in Cambridge?" Susan tells him that she didn't get the job - "they had a last minute change of heart". I knew straight away what this change of heart would entail, and sure enough, it is soon revealed that Dirk has called the company and given Susan a damaging character reference, including details of "her history of sexually harassing patients". Susan hears this on an answering machine message and rounds on Dirk, saying "You conniving little - !" and the bouncy theme music plays as the credits roll.

Now, I don't think the programme is exactly excusing Dirk's behaviour. The 'joke' is set up at the end with Susan trying to pay Dirk a compliment and apologise for thinking he is a self-serving bastard. They are interrupted by the phone message which reveals his duplicity. He is clearly shown to be a self-serving bastard, as Susan says. But this plays out in the same way that Sherlock Holmes' selfishness does in the BBC's Sherlock (as indeed it does in many recent adaptions of the Holmes/Watson stories. Holmes is a clever, unpleasant man. His sidekick Watson is exasperated but loyal, and his romantic relationships with women are continually undermined by the behaviour of Holmes, who acts out of a selfish desire to keep Watson to himself). In Dirk Gently, Dirk is less of an analytical machine than Holmes - his is more of a bumbling, random-chance, instinct-led type of detection which is none-the-less successful - yet his treatment of his sidekick is strikingly similar. Macduff is the down-to-earth voice of reason who acts as a foil to Dirk's quirky 'holistic' detective work, and he is also the long-suffering dogsbody, constantly making tea, being refused a chair or desk in the office and trying ineffectually to keep Dirk on the right side of the law. His relationship with Susan is brought up for the first time in this episode, and its inclusion is for the sole purpose of highlighting this unequal relationship with Dirk. Through Susan, the cipher-girlfriend, we learn that Dirk is brilliant, even if he is a bastard. We learn that Macduff is deeply invested in both Dirk and his detective agency. We learn that Dirk "needs" Macduff, but that Dirk must never know that Macduff knows this. We learn that this relationship, which looks so flawed, works for both parties, and we know that we don't need to question it because Susan has done it for us.

Susan gets no characteristics, no personality of her own, beyond that which is necessary to throw those of Dirk and Macduff into relief. Her professional ambition is acceptable only in that it throws a spanner into the relationship between the two men, and it can be killed off neatly at the end once we have learnt that their working relationship is perfectly fine, thank you very much. Dirk's behaviour is not excused - he is definitely a self-serving bastard - but I think it is exonerated by its positioning at the end of the episode, by the way in which Susan's obvious and entirely justified outrage is cut off by the chirpy theme music. That's just the way he is! He's a bastard, and people will suffer because of him, but that's ok because he's on the side of the righteous. He and Macduff can detect in peace, now that Macduff's inconveniently independent girlfriend has been put back in her place.

And don't even get me started on the gay nerds. There are three non-straight men in this episode, all of whom met on an online gaming site. Two of them are shown in bed together wearing pointy elf ears, and the third (Asian-British) is highly feminized, squealing shrilly and comically when Dirk breaks his nose. So that's sexism, racism, homophobia, geek-shaming, mother-in-law jokes and playing the ruining of someone's career for laughs. Nice work, BBC!

This detective-sidekick pairing follows very similar lines to the Holmes/Watson pairing in Sherlock. There hasn't as yet been any evidence of the homoerotic subtext that is so common in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but the triangular relationship between detective-sidekick-sidekick's partner is incredibly similar. The two men have a working relationship which is also ambiguously personal, and the partner of the sidekick threatens this relationship in some way. (Although the gay subtext isn't there between Dirk and Macduff, it is interesting that Macduff is continually insisting that he is Dirk's "partner", something that Dirk refuses to admit although it is technically true.) The detective is jealous of the sidekick's partner for taking the attention of the sidekick, and the sidekick's partner is eye-rollingly tolerant of the businesslike-but-oddly-personal relationship between her partner and the detective. The situation continues tolerably until some incident in the romantic relationship (marriage, a job in another city) threatens the stability of the relationship between detective and sidekick, and that's when the detective starts behaving badly in order to scupper the relationship between the sidekick and his partner (embarrassing them at a fancy dinner in the 2009 Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes, sabotaging the career of the partner in Dirk Gently. Interestingly this aspect hasn't been depicted in Sherlock - perhaps we need to wait for the third series. Watson's relationships so far - all minor - have been scuppered by his obsession with Holmes - he can barely remember his girlfriends' names and keeps abandoning them to work on cases with Holmes. This is more to do with Watson's inadequacy than Holmes' selfishness).

There are multiple layers to the tension between the two pairings. The detective sees the romantic relationship as a hindrance to the important business of detecting, and the sidekick's partner sees the detecting as a childish distraction from 'real life' (this seems to involve marriage / settling down / making sacrifices for one's partner like moving to Cambridge). The woman is at once portrayed as the grown-up, responsible outsider who tolerates the childish games of the boys, and as the nagging adult bore who wants to spoil their fun / doesn't understand the importance of the job.

The programmes themselves seem ambivalent on the proper response to this. Are these romantic partners silly, frivolous nags who represent a feminine threat to the relaxed, manly pursuits of detection? Or are they mature, responsible adults trying desperately to persuade their immature man-children to grow up and engage in a real relationship / proper job / normal life? I don't think the programmes come down firmly on one side or the other. Both interpretations are implied, and both represent a zero-sum understanding of the options involved. Either the homosocial pairing is adventurous, clever, successful and fun, whilst the heterosexual pairing is boring and restrictive, or the homosocial pairing is childish and comically inept whilst the heterosexual pairing is mature, responsible and fulfilling. What is clear is that men and women are irreconcilably different, and that the sidekick - poor everyman Watson - cannot have both. He must choose: fun times and boyish adventures with his infuriating but brilliant pal? - or a nice, normal, heterosexual relationship? At no point in any of these adaptations is it suggested that the two can coexist. Either the working relationship is damaging the romantic relationship by taking all the time and attention of the sidekick, or the romantic relationship is damaging the working relationship by giving the sidekick non-work-related responsibilities (such as the honeymoon in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows).

What this means for gender portrayals in Dirk Gently, then, is that Susan - the only woman on the detecting 'side' - is inevitably invisible as a real character. Her whole purpose is to create drama and highlight the issues between Dirk and Macduff. I'm not arguing that the programme is sexist, or that men are portrayed more flatteringly than the women - Dirk's is not exactly a positive portrayal of manhood - but poor Susan is given no life at all. She is definitively absent from the real meat of the episode, on which she can only provide a commentary and, by her mere existence, shore up the emotional interplay between the two 'real' characters. Nobody wins the gender wars here: presenting conflicting relationships as a zero-sum game in which one wins and the other loses inevitably denies the humanity of all concerned, and ultimately keeps men and women safely distanced from one another, with little hope of a nuanced portrayal.


  1. Susan has patients? "Interview" not "audition"? She's not a professional cellist in this version? That seems to be somehow making her more ordinary right from the start.

    And Susan wasn't in the pilot? What?

    1. Ah you've got me there - I just had a sneaky look on Wiki and it looks like Susan was fairly important in the pilot. My fault for not checking - I'll look for somewhere to watch the pilot again and see how it treats her. It doesn't bode well, though - a major plot point is that she broke off a relationship because her "suitor" missed a date.

      She's definitely not a 'cellist though! She's a doctor I think.

  2. Thank you for showing me I'm not the single one who was perked about their idea of gays in that episode. They managed to put all the stereotypes in just a couple of characters. Sexual obsession, promiscuos, puer aeternus, manipulation, "pansies", lisp, ridiculous/excentric. I'll watch the final episode when i have time but it was a huge dissapointment, begining with the main character and gross misinterpretations of QM and going through these degrading stereotypes.