Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Pilot Review: Houdini & Doyle

Houdini & Doyle (Mondays at 9:00 on Fox)

Fox is getting a jump start on the summer season with the early debut of the new Canadian-British series Houdini & Doyle. Already aired in the UK, the show draws upon the real-life friendship of master illusionist Harry Houdini and prolific writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, and it may have been better serviced had it simply been a retelling of their relationship. But instead we get a strange kind of supernatural period police procedural that hews far from facts and deals mostly in cliches.

In actuality, Houdini (portrayed here by House's Michael Weston) first met Doyle (Stephen Mangan, Episodes) in 1920, but the scene is set in London, 1901. A nun is murdered, and Scotland Yard enlists the help of the titular characters for their respective knowledge in fields of detective work and magic. Doyle, despite writing grounded characters, is a believer in the paranormal, whereas Houdini knows enough about trickery to poke holes in theories involving the inexplicable. When the nun's murderer is proclaimed to be a ghost, the two semi-detectives pair up with a female constable (newcomcer Rebecca Liddiard) to find out what really happened.

There's little regard for historical accuracy in the series co-created by David Titcher (The Librarians) and David Hoselton (House), with the pilot written by the latter. The screwiness of the timeline goes beyond when Houdini and Doyle actually became friends; in 1901, Houdini was not yet using his famous "water escape" trick, yet that is our introduction to him. He also didn't start debunking spiritualists until the 1920s, yet here he is doing just that. Considering there is a real foundation to the friendship between these characters, why stray from the historical timeline? Why not set the show in the 1920s and focus on the tension between a man who believes in the afterlife (Doyle) and the man who tries to prove it does not exist (Houdini)? It's very odd, especially since the show we end up with is so typical and cliche-ridden. Now, instead, we have a mismatched pair of skeptic/believer buddy cops not unlike Mulder and Scully or Bones and Brennan, the only difference being these two are gallivanting around turn-of-the-century England.

Weston and Mangan are both passable in roles that aren't really defined by the script but rather by what audiences already know about these men. Doyle at least gets some depth with his wife's illness and his duties raising his children alone, but Houdini has no characterization at all, save for one throwaway line early on about how he doesn't fire his assistant because she's pretty. Liddiard gets to play an original character, and I'm glad Hoselton uses her to address the woman's place in London society at the time, but, again, there's no real characterization to her. She's a subject of the period rather than an individual.

The backdrops are rather attractive, though, and seeing how the three protagonists go about solving the murder has a bit of a Sherlockian flair to it. But there's nothing here to keep viewers coming back for more. There's no heart. The characters are cardboard cutouts in nice costumes, and there's no central story to return to because there's no real chemistry between Houdini & Doyle. If future episodes begin to focus more on the burgeoning friendship between the unlikely pair, Houdini & Doyle may be salvaged a bit. But the show would have serviced their real-life counterparts better to focus on the truth of their relationship, rather than bending facts and time to fit an unnecessary and uninteresting format.

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