It used to be that when a TV series premiered in May, that was a sign that the network had no real faith in it. It was tossed on the schedule late, one step from the old summer burn-off. And while times have changed — networks are trying to program year-round — there does seem to be a larger, unexplained mystery at the center of Fox’s latest drama, Houdini & Doyle, which premieres tonight.
If only Arthur Conan Doyle could investigate and give us an answer.
For starters, this British-Canadian-American hodgepodge of a production seems wonky from the get-go, feeling barely American (and when it does, that’s the worst part of it), connected to the States via executive director David Shore (House), whose production arm (distributed by Sony Pictures Television) is the only part that makes it feel like it wasn’t bought outright from elsewhere as a space-filler on the schedule — but of course it is. And there’s no real harm in that (or that it aired in the U.K. and Canada first).
Also, while Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes’ creator did know each other, it wasn’t in the time frame of the series (1901) and they didn’t storm into Scotland Yard to solve quirky cases, aided by a female “policeman” who would have been very, very ahead of her time (although the trio does make a twist on TV’s “cop/not a cop” thing, because it’s now an unholy trinity of “wouldn’t have been a cop/not a cop/not a cop and definitely not famous crime-fighting partners” — if you care about such things).
The point is, everything seems off about Houdini & Doyle, including the casting and pairing of Michael Weston (House) as Houdini and Stephen Mangan (Episodes) as Doyle. There’s not much chemistry between the two, and though you could argue that in real life the friendship between Houdini and Doyle did fray beyond repair and this is a glimpse of their oil-and-water beginnings, mostly it’s just that the actors seem to have different agendas for the same series. That is, Mangan plays it like this is a classic British take on crime solving and Weston seems too brashly self-aware, as if he were performing in a modern-day buddy series (the writing, which has too many hints of current colloquialisms, doesn’t help).
Created by Shore’s longtime collaborator David Hoselton (House) and Canadian writer David Titcher (The Librarians), the duo seem mostly keen to play Houdini and Doyle off of each other with snappy one-liners and comebacks, a repartee we’ve already seen in Holmes-inspired shows like Sherlock on PBS or Elementary on CBS, where it’s done infinitely better.
Adding to that sense of the show not feeling quite right, the two episodes made available to critics interrupts the Houdini and Doyle banter to get sentimental in Doyle’s home, where he’s left to care for his two kids because his wife is in what appears to be a coma (a complication that seems thankfully solved in the second episode and then returned to again). So, there’s the jokey banter, the quirky but not particularly compelling crimes that need to be solved and the heartstrings that need to be tugged. Going forward, that’s a dicey recipe.
There’s also the issue of ahead-of-her time Constable Adelaide Stratton (Man Seeking Woman‘s Rebecca Liddiard), who might be a love interest for Houdini (that would be unfortunate) but in the meantime gets some burgeoning-feminist lines to spout even though they don’t really seem to fit this show, either.
Houdini & Doyle seems mostly like a lark — hey, how weird is it that Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were friends and what if we made them solve crimes together? — than an actual show that works or makes much sense.
The series could just be Fox’s bridge to the summer — something to fill up the schedule because otherwise there’d be a hole in it — but it’s not a bridge you actually have to cross yourself.
Cast: Stephen Mangan, Michael Weston, Rebecca Liddiard
Created by: David Hoselton, David Titcher
Airs: Mondays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)