by Lew Ritter
The modern detective procedural show features a group of suave actors playing Detectives. They solve crimes while driving around in hot sports cars, using the latest technology and keep the world safe from the bad guys. Very traditional and often very predictable.
Houdini and Doyle is an offbeat period piece procedural that takes place in Victorian England, circa the early Twentieth Century. Its main characters are Harry Houdini, the famed illusionist, and Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. The two men were real life friends, who unite to fight unexplained supernatural phenomenon. It is not inconceivable that they would unite for such purposes. It is an offbeat and well executed concept.
In its first season, beginning in the spring of this year, each episode dealt with some impossible crime that appears to be supernatural in nature. Vampires, aliens, unexplained deaths etc. The trio uncover logical reasons for the crime at the end of each episode. Some critics have labeled the show, The “Victorian X-Files. That is fair description because it deals with supernatural crimes in Victorian England. It sounded like an even better idea especially since Fox’s other hit supernatural show Sleepy Hollow ran out of steam in its third season.
Shows rise or fall on the likeability and charisma of its stars. In Houdini & Doyle, the actors are uniformly excellent and well cast. Each of the cast members are relatively unknown in America , but they add a strong presence to their respective roles.
Michael Weston is appropriately unkempt and over the top as the famed illusionist Harry Houdini. He is quirky in manner and eye’s full of mischief. Even when his stock in trade was to pull off incredible illusions that appeared unearthly or even magical. On the show, he is often portrayed as the skeptical debunker of the supernatural.
Stephen Mangan is appropriately dapper as the buttoned down Arthur Conan Doyle. In real life, Doyle was a real life aficionado of the supernatural. As a real life medical doctor, he also brought knowledge of early twentieth century medicine to solve crimes.
Completing the trio is Rebecca Liddiard as Detective Adelaide Stratton, the first female police detective from Scotland Yard. It seems improbable back in the late 19th century that Scotland Yard would have allowed a woman to be a detective. However, for the purpose of the show’s premise, it works very well.
Liddiard presents the perfect foil and rational center for the Houdini and Doyle crime fighting team. Her personal story became the backstory for the series. Week by week, we learn more and more about her past. Stratton discovers that her first husband apparently died or committed suicide. This backstory played out for most of the remaining episodes of Season One. Eventually we learn that the husband was not the victim of an untimely death. Her husband appears first to be an undercover agent in a radical group, and then revealed to be the would be assassin of President McKinley.
Houdini appears to be infatuated by the lovely Stratton, and often a highlight of the show is the banter between the two characters about kindling some sort of romantic relationship. Each of the characters have interesting backstories. Houdini is at the height of his fame as an illusionist and seems to be plagued by death of mother. Doyle is grief stricken that his beloved wife is deep in a coma. He suffers writers block and cannot bring himself to write more Sherlock Holmes stories.
In the season finale, Houdini comes to grip with the death of his mother. Doyle breaks free of his writers block and began writing Hounds of the Baskervilles.
The show does take some liberties with the era. As mentioned, Stratton was an unlikely detective in that era. In another episode, a famed Faith Healer of the era was played by a black actor. Racism would still be a potent factor in Victorian England. However it’s just a light TV show and an indication of how far Hollywood has come in terms of diversity on television. The historical inaccuracies such as these are all over the place. However, they can be forgiven because it is enjoyable escapist entertainment with a supernatural twist.
Several Outstanding episodes:
After a terrifying encounter with otherworldly beings, a man awakes in a field claiming that the aliens have abducted his wife. Doyle and Houdini discover that the “aliens” are really a group of cast off East Europeans stuck at the bottom of a mine for over a dozen years. Lacking exposure to the sun, they appeared to be almost alien in their appearance.
When several people are scared to death, clues lead the team to the notorious Bedlam Mental Hospital. The episode deals with Doyle as an apparent captive of the mental hospital. Later, it is revealed that the abduction is all in the mind of Doyle as he wrestles with issues from his past dealing with his father.
Several other episodes incorporate real life characters from the era. They include Thomas Edison inventing a Necrophone to communicate with the dead. In another episode, a housemaid of Bram Stoker’ is found with a stake through her heart in Vampire style. Stoker was the creator of Dracula.
The season finale jammed two episodes together. The mystery of the show was exploring the mysterious deaths of some members of a mining town. This was resolved about halfway through the show, so that it could wrap up Adelaide Stratton’s backstory.
In the U.S., the show was well scheduled on Monday nights schedule following the spell binding Batman origins show Gotham. It was well written and moved at a fast pace. Its only crime was that it only lasted for a brief ten episodes. The era has many unexplored characters and situations worth exploring. It was a fun show and a nice change of pace that deserved to be renewed for a second season. Unfortunately, even Houdini’s skill as an escape artist couldn’t help Houdini and Doyle escape cancellation.
Lew Ritter is a frequent contributor to TVWriter™. An aspiring TV and film writer, he was a recent Second Rounder in the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition