On the broadcast networks, this time of year often takes on the trappings of a big garage sale. Sometimes you come across a real find in the jumble of mid-season debuts: Excellent shows like “Hannibal,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Wonder Years” all premiered in the months of March or April.
But most of the time, spring gives the broadcast nets chance a chance to clean out their attics and get rid of dust-gathering items they have no real use for. And that brings us to the new drama “Houdini and Doyle.”
Fox has committed — quite possibly overcommitted — to the idea of using existing intellectual property as the basis for many, if not most, of its new shows; if the network can shoehorn the devil, Ichabod Crane or parts of the premise of “Minority Report” into a cop procedural, all the better. This time around, Fox has shoved Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle into a crime-solving partnership that anchors a 10-episode series which aims for a generally light tone, but too often is merely amiably pallid.
The magician and the Sherlock Holmes author did know each other and were even friends for a time, and that connection could indeed supply a reasonably interesting foundation to an inspired TV show. But the crimes on offer in “Houdini and Doyle” are generally tame, plodding or both (and in the second episode, the killer is decidedly easy to predict). For viewers who find period detail, atmospheric storytelling and a textured take on historical figures more important than blood-soaked theatrics, Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” is a much better bet than this show. Another period drama, “The Knick,” which, like “Houdini and Doyle,” is set in a bustling turn-of-the-century metropolis, provides a more taut, layered approach to its characters, as well as exceptional production values. And those who hunger for a fresh approach to all things Conan Doyle (and Sherlock Holmes), it’s hard not to recommend the duo of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in the hit BBC/PBS series.
“Houdini and Doyle” simply doesn’t have enough notable qualities that set it apart, although it does have a couple of worthy elements. The show generally makes good use of some outstanding locations, despite a tendency to over-light sets to the point of detracting from the period vibe. The High Victorian setting of much of the first episode, in which the duo investigates murders at a laundry run by nuns, is superb.
The show’s other strength is Stephen Mangan, who proved his adroitness in “Episodes,” among other programs. Though his skill and range can’t quite raise the overall level of this drama enough to recommend it, Mangan goes above and beyond the call of duty in his sensitive portrayal of Conan Doyle, who, within the time frame of this show, is troubled by the illness of his wife and dabbling in spiritualism.
Rather ponderously, the series does its best to recall the basic dynamic of the “The X-Files,” the king of Fox procedurals, then and now. As was the case with the real Houdini, this version of the man hates the way spiritualists and others he deems charlatans bilk the grieving and credulous, and he condemns their tendency to take advantage of many people’s inability to see past stagecraft and trickery. Doyle, on the other hand, is interested in the phenomena of ghosts and faith healing and doesn’t necessarily reject supernatural explanations for events. The banter between the two men about faith and ethics should form the basis of the show’s appeal, but despite the energy of Mangan and co-star Michael Weston, the first two installments of “Houdini and Doyle” don’t display a real spark. That’s partly because it’s never quite explained why the two keep working together in light of their many other commitments, or why the London police allow them to regularly interfere with investigations.
Unlike Mulder and Scully, or, for that matter, the title character and Dr. Wilson on “House” — which “Houdini and Doyle” executive producer David Shore created — this unlikely duo doesn’t have the kind of chemistry that can carry them past some palpable rough spots. The explanation is simple enough: Though parts of the show are tricked up enough to have potential, “Houdini and Doyle” lacks magic.