Or Nah? is a feature where we watch and review the first episode of a new TV show. We’ll let you know if it’s worth checking out. As always, these reviews are the opinion of the reviewer, but we’ll try to adequately explain why you should or shouldn’t give the show a chance and provide shows for comparison.
Houdini & Doyle
Created by David Hoselton and David Titcher
Executive Producer: Davids Shore, Hoselton, and Titcher.
Pilot: The Maggie’s Redress, directed by Stephen Hopkins.
Airing: From Monday, May 2, FOX. Ten episodes.
I’m a big fan of historical fiction, especially when there’s a mystery to be solved. I love the look of Victorian London, too – all smoke, grime, filthy urchins, toffs, and pre-suffrage women. It’s the turn of the century, and social revolution is making its presence felt, albeit in a quiet way.
Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were friends in real life, and both expressed an interest in the world of the unexplained. This show, originally shown on ITV in March, and now premiering on FOX, has them on opposite sides of the debate. Houdini is a showman, known for his white-knuckle escapes from well-staged near-death showpieces, as well as a skeptic. To him, spiritualism is just a con. Doyle thinks otherwise. His wife lies in a coma, and rather than be pragmatic as a man of science ought to be, his belief in an afterworld keeps his hopes up.
Houdini & Doyle ups the philosophical ante by having the two men team up as consultants for Scotland Yard, where they are assisted by the real brains of the trip, Constable Adelaide Stratton, promoted from her basement desk by her smarmy chief, Horace Merring (a mutton-chopped performance from Blackadder’s Tim McInerney).
When a nun is found dead in mysterious circumstances (aren’t they all?), the only witness swears a ghost of a previous resident of the Magdalene Laundry is the culprit. Houdini claims shenanigans, and has a £10,000 wager with Doyle on the matter. That’s how confident he is. It’s up to the trio to get to the bottom of the case.
I enjoy hokum as much as the next viewer. There is a time and a place for leaving your brain to one side and let whatever you’re watching wash over you, challenge-free. Houdini & Doyle does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s entertaining enough, well-played by a spirited cast. Stephen Mangan is a good choice as Doyle, while Michael Weston is practically effervescent as Houdini. Rebecca Liddiard plays Constable Stratton as a lady determined to make her mark in a man’s world. Her performance is my favourite of the three, however. She deserves to take her boss down many pegs. The show looks well, too. While London could be grimier, the production shows well enough how its past is catching up with it. The 20th century is right around the corner.
The Not So Good
The Magdalene Laundries were scandalous places, and even now, in Ireland especially, the Catholic Church is busy paying restitution to its former charges, which it horribly abused down through the decades. They are not in my mind subjects for light-hearted drama. Not that they shouldn’t be used in drama; far from it. But the girls’ plight is not really addressed and I got the impression that once the case was cleared, the laundries would be discarded to make room for the next instalment.
That’s the political element out of the way. In a nutshell, Houdini & Doyle is another procedural that uses well known figures from history to create new stories. There is a lot of potential here, particularly in the debate of science versus faith, belief versus scepticism. But I don’t think this show will delve too deep into that. I can’t blame a show that wants to entertain, pure and simple, but with such intriguing premise engaging character actors, Houdini & Doyle could and should aim for higher.
I’ll keep an eye on this over the next couple of weeks. But if it can’t reach the heights of, say, Ripper Street, then I may have so say, “Nah!”