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TV Series Review

What do you get when you combine Downton Abbey with The X-Files? Agent Scully in a petticoat? A power-crazed, chain-smoking Lord Grantham? Violet Crawley giving large-eyed aliens a firm-yet-witty dressing down?

If only. What we get instead is Houdini & Doyle, a gimmicky period crime procedural that simultaneously features and diminishes two very famous men: Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Welcome to London circa 1901, an age in which mysticism runs rampant and supernatural crimes are being committed at a rate not seen since Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! Clearly, there's a felt need for some sort of spiritual task force. And since Fox Mulder won't be believing in much of anything for another 90 years or so, the London police wearily make do with a couple of local eccentrics.

You'd Better Believe He Doesn't Believe It

Harry Houdini, a young, brash, up-and-coming magician from the U.S., is the skeptic of the two (a role he also filled throughout his nonfictional lifetime). As a performer, he knows that what looks like magic can have a very pedestrian explanation. He knows what a deft sleight-of-hand artist can do, and he's not interested in buying into anyone's mumbo-jumbo spiritism.

Arthur Conan Doyle, meanwhile, wants to believe. Already famous for his brilliant fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle is a dedicated spiritualist. While he'd admit that not all fortune-tellers can see the future or that all glowing demon dogs are, well, literal hounds from hell, he will not refute the possibility—nay, the likelihood—that such things are possible. (In real life, the friendship of Houdini and Conan Doyle broke over this difference of opinion; Houdini allegedly performed a spiritist illusion so convincingly that Conan Doyle refused to believe that it was a trick.)

But while the two may quibble over whether the Tarot is a window to the future or just a deck with a few extra cards, the two do share one passion: solving crimes and catching crooks. And so, with the help of their police liaison Adelaide Stratton, the dive together into London's grimy alleys to bring a little more justice to them—and maybe unsheet a ghost or two.

Contemporary Values and Habits

Houdini & Doyle is the result of a three-country collaboration among Great Britain's ITV, Canada's Global and, of course, the Fox network in the United States. But more cooks in the episodic kitchen does not a better TV meal make.

In terms of violence and gore, this is more Elementary than X-Files, more Bones than blood. And because the program takes place in a more refined era, the language is a bit more restrained as well. But, frankly, it's not as restrained as it probably should be, again given the era. Indeed, Houdini & Doyle does what many a half-baked, lightweight, period-themed popcorn-muncher does: It injects contemporary values and habits into its historical concept, giving viewers a false, vacuous program wherein the only real difference between then and now is limited to high-stepping horses and poufy bustles.

That failure to properly communicate extends beyond weird oversights, too, like how Houdini and Conan Doyle sometimes make a "friendly" 20-pound wager over cases (the equivalent of about $2,000 today). It's also the flippancy with which characters talk about sex or religion, and the effort to make Houdini, Stratton and Conan Doyle relatable to more prurient, more accepting 21st-century audiences.

That won't sit so well with viewers who still cling to "old-fashioned" values. You know, things like linguistic decorum and the sanctity of marriage. And neither will Houdini's bristling agnosticism or Conan Doyle's often-heretical spiritism.


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Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Houdini & Doyle: May 8, 2016 "A Dish of Adharma"



Readability Age Range



Stephen Mangan as Arthur Conan Doyle; Michael Weston as Harry Houdini; Rebecca Liddiard as Adelaide Stratton; Emily Carey as Mary Conan Doyle; Noah Jupe as Kingsley Conan Doyle; Adam Nagaitis as George Gudgett; Tim McInnerny as Horace Merring






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On Video

Year Published



Paul Asay

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