Few are unfamiliar with some version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous witty crime-solver, Sherlock Holmes, interpreted most recently by Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. FOX already interpreted Holmes once before in the hospital drama “House M.D.”, where Hugh Laurie portrayed an antisocial, brilliant doctor with a penchant for solving impossible cases (his loyal friend Dr. Wilson playing the Dr. Watson foil). But the man who created the fictional sleuth, much like Holmes himself, is somewhat clouded in secrecy, popular yet enigmatic, admired yet a bit reclusive. In FOXs “Houdini & Doyle,” (based on the two’s real-life friendship) the author, played by a somewhat demure, yet eloquent Stephen Mangan, is given the pristine limelight that his character has relished in for over a century, accompanied by Harry Houdini (an underutilized Michael Weston), the most famous magician in history, both at the peak of their stardoms, coalescing their talents to solve crimes. The idea of this show working is better than the actual execution. The show feels like a desperate grasp at attempting to remake the Sherlock story – in theory it works as a TV procedural, think an “NCIS” series meets “Penny Dreadful” – with Houdini as an added afterthought. Do we really need the two sharing a frame? Sometimes more isn’t more, e.g., “Batman v. Superman.”
In the premiere, titled “The Maggie’s Redress,” the author and wily stage performer are asked to help out on a murder case at a convent set in 1901 London. The suspect is none other than a deceased nun’s ghost. This provokes some interesting dialogue between the two over trickery v. truth. Doyle sees an opportunity to use scientific resources to produce concrete proof that “death isn’t the end,” but the suspicious Houdini, a master of artifice, isn’t buying the idea. In essence, one is superstitious, while the other is vehemently opposed to such uncorroborated stories. It’s no mystery that Houdini was a skeptic, always looking to expose pretenders posing as professionals. This was most recently portrayed in the 2014 mini-series starring Adrien Brody, where he debunked phony mediums exploiting bereaved customers. This ying-yang rapport continues to play out in the episode, but never piquing interest like it did with their initial disagreement over death. It’s a shame, because Houdini’s comedic candor and Doyle’s pragmatic nature make for an epic potential pairing. The actors are fine in their respectable parts; it’s the writing that suffers, never becoming as engaging as Doyle’s famous fables or as entertaining as Houdini’s stunt performances.
The duo is joined by a third investigator, Constable Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), a wide-eyed detective working for the Metropolitan Police tired of prevailing patriarchy keeping her at a desk job where she only comes out of the basement to pour tea. She’s more than just eye-candy, she gets a nice moment mid-way through where she stops a thief in his tracks through her own volition. She also quickly points out the lack of opportunity when working while woman. “It’s easy for you,” she forthrightly explains to Doyle, underscoring the male privilege that permeates most of the occupations of the early nineteenth century (and still today). Highlighting her salient words are the other women portrayed on the show, females pushed to the corner of the occupational box who have every right to hold grudges over their poor treatment – nuns in agony and one of Houdini’s showgirls treated with second-class citizenship by a boss who overlooks her incompetence because she’s a looker. If the writers are aiming to portray inspiring, successful women, they have their work cut out for them.
Unlike the real-life early century icons, these interpretations are flat, often insipid and, ultimately, forgettable. Neither of the two leads offers the complexity, layered performance worthy of a character study nor have the chemistry that requires more viewing. “Houdini & Doyle” has the potential to be better than it is, but that’s a case for the writers to solve.