Playing the Sidekick: Dirk Gently's Holistic Humanity
Distinct roles aren’t the whole of human identity.
Originally published in Area of Effect magazine
As the word suggests, sidekicks are, by nature, to the side of a story. They’re the Robin to Gotham’s Batman or the Watson to London’s Sherlock, supportive helpers who sometimes need rescuing. Yet being a sidekick is simply a role to be filled, not a fixed status or a title someone is born into. Sidekicks are never just assistants. And in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Gently’s “assistant” is a key player in a (hilarious) drama that isn’t always—or only—about him.
In the TV show inspired by the Douglas Adams’ novel, Todd Brotzman is a bellhop with exceedingly bad luck—or is it good luck? Either way, the Universe decides to make Todd a part of its plan by bringing Dirk Gently into his life. From where the audience is sitting, this is Todd’s story; he’s the character we get to know first and we relate to him because he is just as confused about the show’s weirdness as we are. But it isn’t a story about Todd; it’s about the Universe and Dirk’s relationship to it. Dirk constantly reminds us of this by referring to Todd as his “assistant,” a title that brands him as a sidekick even though we see the world through Todd’s eyes.
Though Todd finds himself playing the sidekick almost against his will, I often put myself in a similar role on purpose, choosing to support leaders or help others reach their goals in an attempt to avoid the weight of responsibility. But I’m a sidekick with a hero-complex—I want to swoop in and fix the problem or spout the wisdom that saves the day. I doubt I’m alone in this paradox, feeling the tension of not wanting the protagonist’s responsibility but thirsting for the glory of a leading role.
And it works both ways. As the show’s official holistic detective, everyone looks to Dirk to take the lead in solving the mystery. But Dirk is remarkably incompetent in wielding his gift. He doesn’t make anything happen; things just happen to him and those around him. In the fifth episode of Season One, Dirk confesses to Todd he isn’t a psychic with a master plan, and that he’s afraid people might get hurt. Dirk is just a guy the Universe won’t leave alone and, if he had the choice, he wouldn’t have the lead role in the story.
In this same episode, Todd confesses to never suffering from Pararibulitis, a hallucinatory condition of extreme pain and fear. This changes the way Dirk and the audience see Todd, who now works tirelessly to pay for his sister Amanda’s (necessary) medication for the same disease after squandering their parents’ savings for a lie and easy living. In a recap at AV Club, Lisa Weidenfeld makes an uncomfortable observation:
If Todd is so sure he’s an asshole, he can never really disappoint himself. But he also never has to try to be better, even though it’s been clear throughout the run of the show that he’s trying desperately hard to do things for Amanda.
On the surface, this sounds like a contradiction—a jerk trying to be a good guy but still pretty sure he’s an irredeemable jerk. It’s a paradox I experience frequently, along with anyone who feels the weight of good things left undone alongside the burden of bad decisions. Yet for Todd, and for myself, this realization plants the seeds of redemption, as confession often does.
By realizing they can’t succeed on their own, Todd and Dirk’s distinct roles of helper and hero begin to matter less and less, even as the distinction continues to exist.
The way Dirk Gently plays with these roles complicates how heroes and helpers (or detectives and their assistants) are normally viewed. By investing the “sidekick” with agency—as all support roles have in reality—the position of helper gains a traditionally unrecognized power but also loses its essence of safety. The successes and failures of both the sidekick and the hero become enmeshed, distinct but inseparable—just as they are in reality. And the inherent vulnerabilities of leadership displayed in Dirk reminds viewers what unites leaders is responsibility, and that responsibility isn’t always chosen.
Distinct roles aren’t the whole of human identity. While it matters whether I call myself a writer and take steps to fill that role, I’m more than my vocation; I’m more than a husband, brother, or son—I am all these things. It’s not an inherent weakness of stories that viewers often take this necessarily narrow focus and elevate a slice of reality above its proper place. The great strength of stories is how they can amplify elements of human experience to teach lessons about what it truly means to be human. Stories can’t fully encompass everything that defines humanity, however. The multifaceted quality of being human means heroes are helpers and helpers are heroes. This is a liberating truth, even if it doesn’t make for straightforward plot lines.
Believing everything will work out in the end, thanks either to the guiding hand of a whimsical Universe or the self-sacrificial love of God, doesn’t mean there won’t be risks and pain along the way. Dirk Gently’s focus on “the interconnectedness of all things” is a reminder that sometimes the leading role looks a lot like being an assistant, and vice versa. I think Dirk would agree with what C.S. Lewis said about reality:
“Besides being complicated, reality [...] is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect.”
Dirk Gently insists that, in the face of a big, overwhelming world, not everything rests on my shoulders. Free from that ultimate weight, I’m able to take up the responsibilities of leading or helping as needed, secure in the truth that my identity extends beyond any single role.