When we first meet Harry Houdini, he’s chained up inside a tank of water. Don’t worry, he escapes. That’s kinda his thing. We first meet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at a book release event, where fans keep quoting Sherlock Holmes to him while he’s trying to promote his new non-Sherlock book. Again, kinda his thing. But they’re both drawn together by the same murder case, a murder being attributed to a ghost. Houdini, a pragmatist, is offended that the police would actually attribute a murder to a ghost, something completely outside the realm of evidence and logic. Doyle, a believer in the supernatural, is excited at the chance to prove that supernatural forces do indeed exist. So, naturally, the Chief Inspector allows them, a magician and a writer, to investigate the murder. (Read: sarcasm.) Seriously though, this is probably the least believable thing that occurs in this episode (and there are a few), but I guess it must be done somehow, seeing as it is the entire premise of the show.
The two completely unqualified investigators are joined, however, by a policeman, or rather a policewoman, Constable Adelaide Stratton. Poor Constable Stratton is only brought up from her basement desk job to babysit the eccentric men and keep them out of the Chief Inspector’s hair. He makes that quite clear to her in a very stuffy-old-sexist-white-man way. Houdini even assumes she’s there to get him coffee, though Doyle is pleasantly not an ass (like everyone else) and introduces himself like a decent human being. Stratton is, understandably, out to prove herself as a policeman in a world where people keep calling her a “policeman” because “policewoman” isn’t even a word. She adds a very interesting element to a show that would be entirely male-dominated without her, and forces everyone, Houdini especially, to respect her efforts and not dismiss her just because she’s a woman. It is rather strange to see her in her Victorian police dress, though.
And now to the case at hand. Houdini, Doyle, and Stratton investigate the murder of a nun in a laundry facility that houses disenfranchised women and puts them to work doing laundry. The nun who found the victim claims that the murderer was the ghost of a girl who had been neglected and died at the facility a year prior. Doyle jumps right on that explanation but Houdini sets about disproving it by illustrating that a real human person could easily accomplish the supposed supernatural feats involved–he is a master of illusion, after all. The three investigators go about their investigation in unique ways: Houdini shows Doyle and Stratton that trickery and illusion can easily be used to manipulate people into thinking it was a ghost; Doyle consults a medium who leads him to a random criminal perpetrator; and Stratton tries to help Doyle prove that the case isn’t closed yet because as long as they stay on the case, Stratton stays out of her basement office dungeon.
Along the way, we learn a little more about our three main characters. Doyle is on a desperate quest to communicate with his wife through a medium. His wife is not dead, a fact that a fraudulent medium wrongly guesses, but in a coma, leaving him to care for their young children. His desire to believe in the supernatural is shown to be a desperate hope that his wife is still of this world in some form, even if only as a spirit. Houdini reveals that his obsession with disproving the supernatural stems from the increase in charlatans who’ve been using his own illusions to manipulate innocents into believing in the supernatural. This determination to take responsibility for those who use his methods for the wrong purpose really gives Houdini a much more admirable side, underneath the frankly dickish way he normally interacts with people. He also reveals a soft spot for his mother, and a humility about his fame that, again, is normally masked by dickishness.
Stratton is pretty straightforward in her desire to prove herself worthy of her job as a constable, but she really sells it in a conversation with Houdini in which he basically tells her if she’s not going to take her job seriously, she should just wait for a man to marry her and buy her pretty dresses. Stratton ferociously explains the two options that she would have if she quit her job: 1) she could work in the laundry facility like the browbeaten girls who are neglected and overworked by the nuns, or 2) she could waste away as someone’s wife, confined to a life of “pretty dresses.” Houdini is taken aback by her strong words, but there’s definitely respect there, as he can see that she’s serious about the work and about making her own way in the world.
After doing a little more of their own versions of investigation, each of the three investigators come to the same conclusion about the murder and rush back to the laundry facility to apprehend the killer–a real, live person, to Doyle’s disappointment. But even though the supernatural wasn’t behind this murder, there were still a few moments that left even Houdini questioning himself. Enough is left open ended that one can assume later cases may end up being less than natural.
Overall, the show was enjoyable, but I did expect more ridiculous fun from something with the premise of “Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle investigate supernatural murder mysteries together.” The show is a British-Canadian-American joint production, so the British television vibe is much stronger than I had anticipated. There are only a few moments when we get to see the titular characters in their own lives, being the world famous magician and author, which is something that I was hoping to get more of. Houdini does have a decidedly brash American magician personality to him, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and Doyle is a bit Sherlockian in his deductive style, which is also entertaining, but I’m looking forward to seeing how they both develop into more distinct characters.
Another thing that I’m hoping develops a lot is the supposed “first bromance in history” between the two men. When they first meet in the pilot, it’s not clear if they are friends or if they’re just antagonistic acquaintances. Throughout the episode they are most bickering about the case, but then suddenly they have a shouting match that gets super real, super fast. Houdini asks who died to make Doyle that obsessed with the supernatural, and Doyle counters that Houdini is just scared he wouldn’t be “worthy” of the supernatural if it did exist. The fight was truly out of the blue and I’m not sure why they were so angry at each other, since it really doesn’t seem like they’re that close.
Other than that, though, their relationship in this episode was pretty cute and could definitely develop well into a full-fledged bromance. Houdini cheerfully ropes Doyle into a wager over the case in their first scene together, and upon winning the bet, he receives Doyle’s newest book, handwritten inscription in the cover, and places it lovingly next to the rest of his extensive Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collection. As a major fan of bromances of all shapes and sizes, I am definitely looking forward to their deepening friendship. It looks like there could also be some deepening of the relationship between Houdini and Stratton, who already have pretty good chemistry.
So Houdini and Doyle gets off to a bit of a slow start, but I am a firm believer that you can’t judge a show by its pilot, or even its first few episodes. It takes a while to find the sweet spot for most shows, and I’m willing to bet Houdini and Doyle will find theirs soon. The season will be ten episodes total, so stayed tuned!