Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Fox's new Houdini & Doyle surpassed all my expectations. Fun banter and good mystery without gore. I loved that the first mystery took place at a Magdalene laundry, (although I thought they were only in Ireland, not in London as well, but whatever) a nice topic to tackle the hypocrisies of the late Victorian age. The pilot takes place in 1901, when a nun is seemingly murdered by a ghost at the laundry. After reading the newspaper account, both Houdini and Doyle go to Scotland Yard to ask for permission to investigate the case. The man in charge (played by Tim McInnerny) decides to pawn off the famous men to a woman constable, ordering her to just play nursemaid and keep them out of trouble. Thus Constable Stratton has motivation to prove herself and make it a serious investigation. Interestingly, Doyle is perfectly willing to shake her hand and accept her help, being a gentleman, even if he's not totally feminist, while Houdini is the one who can't believe she's a cop and says sexist things.

What I loved the most was Doyle, even though the actor looks nothing like the real man. I had feared that the show would make Houdini the smart, insightful, logical person, while humiliating Conan Doyle and portraying him as gullible, deluded and obstinate about his Spiritualism. But it's not that way at all; everything is even-handed and fair. Doyle is not shown as senile, and he insists that he's motivated by science, that all the technological marvels of the Industrial Age include the possibility of finding new evidence for the existence of ghosts. Doyle visits a psychic medium and seems taken in by her, but later, when she makes a mistake, he realizes he's been duped and goes away in disappointment. At one point Houdini stages a fake ghostly visitation to scare Doyle and the constable, but Doyle is skeptical enough to test the stage blood and realize it's not real, just a prank. Doyle wants to believe in the supernatural, but he'll investigate to prove it and eliminate rational explanations; in this show we can see that Doyle is like his creation Sherlock Holmes, even if Holmes didn't believe in Spiritualism. It explores how a scientific man like Isaac Newton still believed in alchemy; a scientific mind is not immune to the attraction of irrational interests and beliefs. Scientists are only human, with prejudices of their own. Doyle even gets to use his medical knowledge to spot the killer, due to a rare genetic trait she has. In later episodes, we'll have to see if they explore Doyle's bedridden wife Touie more, and his romance with Jean Leckie.

Religion was explored through the nuns as well; the eventual culprit confessed that she felt the typical Catholic guilt for her sins, and that the just punishment for her crimes was to kill herself as well. At this point Houdini mistakenly says to Doyle, "You're a Catholic. Talk to her." (Doyle was raised Catholic, but he renounced the religion as a young adult, and out of principle did not use those familial Catholic contacts to help his medical practice.) Houdini probably did not know Doyle that well yet, or was referring to Doyle's childhood experiences to try to bond with the killer. Some people say that ex-Catholics are still always Catholics. As for Houdini, he has some complex motivations as well. He adores his mother and even hires an actor to pretend to be the King at a party he throws for her; he tells the constable not to shatter the illusion because he too can see the use in harmless pretense. But Houdini also keeps a wall full of photographs of the sham Spiritualists that he has exposed. He claims that his magic shows make it easier for gullible people to be deluded by con artists like these, so Houdini is on a very personal mission to expose these frauds. It's also satisfying when Houdini discovers the rational explanation of why people kept seeing the ghost in the convent; it's much like in the first Guy Ritchie Holmes movie when we learn that the villain Blackwood does not have supernatural powers after all. Doyle is perfectly willing to accept this explanation and acknowledge that he was wrong.

As for the third star of the show, the Scotland Yard constable Adelaide Stratton is still not completely defined yet. So far, she has to mostly react to Houdini and Doyle, though occasionally she can get a few assertive lines, such as when she responds to Houdini advising her to quit and find a man to marry. Stratton's boss promotes her at the end but says it's because he thinks Houdini is having an affair with her; he's going to prove it and fire her and make sure no other women get hired in the future. So he gets to be the villainous sexist pig of the show. But I'm glad that she'll have allies in Houdini and Doyle, so that the show will not feel like another period-set, soul-crushing, feminism-can-never-win-against-the-system show: Agent Carter. I still deeply resent that show for disappointing and depressing me so much.

Anyway, I know that the ratings for Houdini and Doyle weren't great, but I'm hoping that the standards for summer-ish shows will be lower and that Fox will be content to let all the episodes play out like they did for Minority Report and Second Chance this season. I'll be a devoted watcher no matter what. It fills the hole left by the Pinkertons TV show, and I hope Constable Stratton will be a good replacement for Kate Warne.

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