Houdini and Doyle – review

Earlier this week when I was setting up the DVR schedule for the family, I noticed a “new” show on Fox. Now, I’ll admit up front that I don’t watch much network TV and even less from Fox. But the title of the show, Houdini & Doyle, intrigued me enough to read the description and then to set the DVR to record. Last night, we sat down and watched the first episode.

The basic set-up is simple. In 1901 London, the Metropolitan police find themselves investigating certain cases that aren’t quite your run-of-the-mill crimes. Is there are real supernatural element to them or what? The police are stumped, so they call in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who most definitely do NOT want to write another Holmes mystery, and Harry Houdini. Doyle believes in the supernatural and Houdini does not. In fact, when brought in on the mystery of the murder of a nun, Houdini bets Doyle that he proves there is no supernatural element at all.

To round out our investigative team is Constable Adelaide Stratton. Our first glimpse of her finds her deep in the basement of the station, typing away. When she is brought to the chief constable’s office to be briefed, Houdini looks at her and dismisses her as “the help” — oh, he doesn’t say so outright, but he asks her to bring him a cup of tea. When the introductions are made, he is surprised to learn she is a “real” constable. This is the first of several encounters between Houdini and Stratton where Houdini proves himself to be an “ugly American”, crass enough to show he thinks women beneath men. Still, that is softened a bit in a scene where he is giving his mother a birthday party and his love for her softens him.

The mystery itself is entertaining. A young nun finds the first murder victim and sees what she thinks is the ghost of a young woman who, we are to learn, died as a result of ill-treatment of others there. While Houdini tries to find a mundane explanation for what happened — he leans toward robbery — Doyle looks at the supernatural, including visiting a medium (and we quickly learn this is not a new behavior for Doyle). Stratton sort of walks a thin line between them. She wants to prove herself to be as worthy as any man. Unfortunately, being female in a man’s world, that is a difficult road to hoe — as shown at the end of the episode when her supervisor tells her that he assumes she must be sleeping with Houdini since Houdini told him how well she had done on the assignment. Because of that, he would keep an eye on her and, as soon as he had proof, not only get her booted out of the constabulary but he would make sure she never found work as a copper again.

Overall, the episode was enjoyable but nothing earth shattering. The banter between Doyle and Houdini grinds at times. Doyle is a bit boring and stodgy with hints of something else, as in when he talks about the supernatural or when he goes to the medium. Those scenes give us more of his background, more of who he is, than anything else in this first episode.

Houdini is more than a bit of an ass. Cocky, condescending and more. Yes, he’s a talented magician or illusionist but there is no give to him, or at least not that we see until at least halfway through the episode. In some ways, he is the pesky little brother you wish big brother (Doyle) would beat into a pulp. Worse, the chemistry between the two didn’t really start to gel until the last third of the episode.

As for how the two main male characters deal with Stratton, Houdini basically dismisses her. Part of that, we begin to see later in the episode, is just him. He can’t admit someone might have been better than he at something, even if his life depends on it. An example of this occurs in the second half of the episode when Stratton saves Doyle and Houdini from drowning after they had been locked in to a flooding area. Houdini had been trying to pick the padlock and failing. Time was running out and along came Stratton to save them. When she points out that she did save his life a little later, Houdini’s response is to quip something along the lines of “my dear lady, I have been escaping water traps six times a week for years.” The dismissal is clear — but, by then, the viewer is starting to get that maybe, hopefully, it is more bravado than anything else. If not, Houdini is going to drive viewers away.

There is more connection between Stratton and Doyle. Not romantic and not sexual tension, at least not yet, but some understanding. That keeps her from becoming just the political and social mouthpiece for the show — although we do get a few quick speeches from her about women’s rights, etc.

The mystery is pretty good, although I figured it out before the reveal. The explanation of the “supernatural” element, which turned out to be mundane, was a bit of a stretch. Not because of how plausible or implausible it might be but because there was no real groundwork laid for it.

What will have me tuning in for the next episode was the very last scene of the show — was it groundwork for a change in opinion for Houdini or was it the foreshadowing of another mystery? Inquiring minds want to know.

Overall, I’d give the show a “B”. It has a great premise but has not lived up to its potential yet. If it doesn’t start picking up next week, it will be like most shows on network TV: watched once or twice and discarded as a waste of time.

We’ll see.

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