Cruising the well-lit streets of Brooklyn with his faithful cameraman Randy in tail, Dick Doblin’s hardboiled persona feels a little on the soft-side. Dick, I suppose represents the iconic Private Eye – ripped straight from the pulpy, golden age of sleuthing. Armed with a trenchcoat, mustache and fedora, Dick’s adventures out in the rough and real streets of New York are shot with a shaky guerrilla edge. Filmed almost entirely out in public, blending improvisation with scripted conversational milestones, there’s an initial rush of excitement and sense of potential that Dick Doblin: Privateye instills, but also never repeats or recaptures.
Presented to the audience as a series of informative lessons in private detection from the titular Dick himself, we follow Doblin around and watch him demonstrate the best way to stalk a mark, conduct a stake-out or pump a suspect for information. Doblin’s faithful cameraman, (played by writer and director Tyler G Hall) acts as an audience “in”, who excuses the slap-dash camerawork and gives Doblin a partner to bounce off. Letting us witness Doblin’s madness through the eyes of his enabler is a stroke of genius; Randy’s naive questions and remarks fuel many of the series’ high-points.
Like any good detective story, Dick Doblin: Privateye opens with a crime; Doblin’s camera is snatched by a thief in an orange hoodie outside the subway station. The series revolves around Doblin’s efforts to bring this criminal to justice, but without police intervention – apparantly the boys down at his old Precinct just wouldn’t understand. The fast talking ex-cop decides to follow his nose, employ some good old fashioned police work and take us on a trail throughout New York, where he chases down leads and questions witnesses. Episodes 1 and 2 are technically well executed, pulling us into the immediate situation without heaping on too much detail.
Lucas Whitehead is entertaining to watch as Dick, hitting many of the right notes and also bringing some unexpected physical comedy to the mix as he does. Some truly great editing keeps everything moving, though there are rough patches that drag regardless. The writing (or improv) itself provides Doblin with plenty of great 40′s inspired expressions and mannerisms to work with, but sadly they’re not often delivered with the gravitas required to sell the Film Noir vibe.
Interestingly for me, Dick Doblin: Privateye shares a lot of structural similarities with “The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar” a particularly short, yet standout sketch from British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb. In this sketch Robert Webb plays a homeless man under the delusion he’s a Dick Barton-esque adventurer/super spy at the center a grand conspiracy against him. Each installment sees Sir Digby and his faithful manservant Ginger (David Mitchell) drunkenly stumbling from encounter to encounter, assaulting, robbing and terrifying pedestrians that he labels “agents” of his “nemesis”.
The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar – Can you spot the similarities too?
Perhaps it’s unfair to draw a comparison between the two, but to anybody who’s seen both it’s inescapable. Watching Dick Doblin: Privateye through the context of “Sir Digby”, it’s apparent that Dick Doblin lacks a certain internal consistency that hurts it in the long run. Sir Digby riffs on “familiar” (or at least understandable) themes such as alcoholism, psychosis, homelessness and conspiratorial delusions – it presents a comical, larger than life character that we can understand because he’s the sum of “everyday” parts. Dick Doblin however, is less clean-cut. Doblin is a man out of time, presented to us in a completely straight fashion. It’s unclear if he’s a time-traveler, a 40′s film buff, mentally ill or maybe just a hipster. Dick skulks around modern day New York talking like a relic from the past. Wherever he goes, he stands out like a sore thumb, and yet despite these comic flaws, it’s never adequately expressed to the audience what angle Doblin is really coming from.
Some things are better left unexplained, but for a mysterious origin to properly function, your audience needs to be brought in on it with a few subtle nods. In the case of “Sir Digby”, we are clued in through Webb’s shifty looks and the small cracks in his character. The fiction supporting Dick Doblin’s escapades would have been drastically enriched were there some hints that he was say… Another eccentric New Yorker living out a very public delusion to the embarrassment of those around him. Layering details like into his character adds context to his actions, ultimately deepening the pathos inherent in Doblin’s failings.
As it stands, we’re never given reason to doubt the integrity of Doblin’s words, and so when his actions misfire repeatedly and make him look like a fool, it’s completely unclear what his actual flaw is.
Like it’s titular character, Dick Doblin: Privateye is flawed but fun. Without the depth needed to do its performances justice, its humour often falls flat. The shows production, premise and technical execution are solid, and as piece of mindless fun, you could do worse.
Watch Dick Doblin: Privateye here.