The premise is promising enough: At the turn of the 20th century, two historical icons — beloved illusionist Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — team up to help the Metropolitan Police in London solve a string of bizarre cases. Such will serve as the basis for Fox's new 10-part mini-series.
Let me start by saying I was a bit besotted with the series prior to the premiere simply based on the talent of the show's two anchors, Michael Weston (Six Feet Under, Scrubs, House M.D., Law & Order: SVU, Elementary) as Houdini and Stephen Mangan (Episodes, Rush, Free Agents, Never Better, Jane Hall) as Doyle.
In the series, Houdini is a skeptic, Doyle is a believer and they ping-pong witty barbs back and forth due to their conflicting ideologies. Houdini's strict adherence to science and rationality do not sit well with Doyle's belief in the paranormal or supernatural, and vice versa.
Weston and Mangan do not disappoint, both delivering their lines with crisp aplomb.
What the show also had going for it was the addition of relative newcomer Rebecca Liddiard in the role of Constable Adelaide Stratton, the first female constable for the London Metro Police. Here's where the show really has an opportunity to impress... if they handle the character well.
Because history has so often been written by men, we don't always get to see the strong women central to progress. Stratton's story arc already does double duty: It adds a much-needed female narrative to this historical perspective and it also makes a pointed social commentary about the oppression of women throughout history.
We learn that Stratton spent years trying to get anyone (read: any men) to take her seriously, only to be stowed away in the basement once she became a constable.
During a particularly heated conversation with Houdini, she uses her voice to tell him a life of "frilly dresses and condescension" is not the fate she wishes for herself. "This might be a bet for you, but for me this is my life," she says.
The only reason Stratton is given the chance to work with Houdini and Doyle, her commanding officer drives home, is so she can play "nursemaid" and nothing more. When she helps crack their first case and Houdini passes her praise onto the C.O., he assumes she must be sleeping with Houdini. So Stratton gets moved out of the basement, but only in so much as it might benefit her boss to have her under a more watchful eye.
Liddiard, a woman slight in frame, proves large in presence. She pulls back at the right moments and plows full steam ahead when the subject matter merits. Here's hoping they don't reduce her to a mere trope... the vehicle which drives a love triangle or romantic dalliance with one of her colleagues.
Aside from that potential nightmare, what's the problem then?
The premiere was fun enough and certainly visually pleasing, set against a stunning steampunk-esque backdrop of period London. The acting was impressive, if not a bit over-acted at times. The problem, then, was that the series simply lacked a certain... magic.
It has all the elements to make it a success but, to be honest, it's all over the place. It's as though The X-Files and Scooby Doo had a love child, and that love child was Houdini & Doyle — it toes the line between comical crime caper and supernatural silliness too hard at times.
As for the historical aspect, I'm admittedly not incredibly well-versed in Houdini and Doyle's real-life friendship. However, I think it's safe to say the show is very loosely based on history and takes great poetic license. Which is fine! Just don't expect a historically factual experience every week.
The biggest issue, though, is that — despite its supernatural whims — the show lacks originality. It's a British period drama. It features partners on opposite ends of a spectrum who have a symbiotic relationship. We've seen procedurals like this before, from Fox no less.
Having said that, it was an amusing way to pass the time on an otherwise dull Monday night. I'll tune in next week, keeping my fingers crossed that Houdini & Doyle has more tricks up its sleeve.
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