Houdini & Doyle. Fox. Monday, May 2, 9 p.m.
As part of Fox's continuing experiment in what happens if you feed a TV programmer a triple-anchovy pizza around midnight, then have him drift off to sleep while reading a James Ellroy novel, we now have the network's second-oddest crime-fighting team of the television season: Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle. Pitting a magician and a detective writer against supernatural criminals in post-Victorian London may be slightly less outlandish than teaming a gorgeous homicide cop and Satan in millennial L.A., as Fox does in Lucifer, but only slightly.
Pairing Houdini with Doyle is not quite as random as it might seem if you aren't familiar with their biographies, and the show may even be said to draw on some shallow historic roots, in roughly the same degree that Springtime for Hitler is drawn from The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich.
Houdini, in the final decade of his life, employed the skills he used in his magic act to became a prodigious debunker of mediums and faith-healers. At around the same time, Doyle—ironically, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate rationalist—grew increasingly fascinated by spiritualism and the belief in life after death. The men had been friends, but the rift over the paranormal led to a bitter estrangement, to the point that Doyle even accused Houdini of being a genuine medium who was framing his rivals as frauds to increase his power in the spirit world.
Instead, Fox chose to pick up the Canadian-British production Houdini & Doyle, essentially a pre-flying-saucer version of The X Files in which Scotland Yard is the FBI, Doyle the true-believer Mulder, and Houdini the skeptical Scully. And despite all the historical disenlightenment, you can still have some fun watching.
As the show gets under way, Houdini and Doyle have separately contacted Scotland Yard offering assistance—from opposite ends of the belief spectrum—with the investigation of a faith-healer whose doubters seem to die abruptly with uncoincidental regularity.
The chief inspector, wary of the power of media celebrities with friends in high places, decides to protect himself by teaming them with another political problem—Scotland Yard's first female cop, who has been complaining that the only time she's ever summoned from her basement desk is to make somebody's tea—and sending the lot of them off on a ghost-busting snipe hunt that will keep them out from under foot of the real investigation. Spoiler alert: It doesn't quite work out that way.
As is often the case with buddy-cop shows, the quality of the mysteries on Houdini & Doyle varies considerably week to week—some not bad, some so strained that even the Gerber baby would spit them out in disgust.
What keeps matters interesting is the byplay among the characters, so philosophically at odds that they're often working against one another, Doyle trying to prove that a murderer is a ghost while Houdini chases a mortal embezzler. Their arguments are classic and insoluble confrontations of faith vs. empiricism. "Every religion has told us, for centuries, that death isn't the end," insists Doyle. Retorts Houdini: "What a complete and utter load of crap! Death is scary. Death should be scary."
The conflicted relationship between Houdini and Doyle is in the hands of a talented pair of actors. Michael Weston of House plays Houdini with an endearingly brash abandon. And Stephen Mangan, the hilariously beleaguered British-scriptwriter character on Showtime's underrated industry lampoon Episodes, is almost completely unrecognizable as Doyle, whose witheringly dry humor has survived the shattering of his soul by human mortality. (He lost seven family members to war and disease in a few years shortly after the turn of the century.)
His elegant contempt for cultish fans unhinged by his decision to kill off Sherlock Holmes in his most recent short story colors even his occasional conversations with God. "You probably prefer Dickens," shrugs Doyle to the Almighty, who doubtless is thinking, when you've eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth.