Opposites don't always attract: Fox's 'Houdini & Doyle' takes the game to turn-of-the-last century London

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

In Fox's new Canadian-British-American series "Houdini & Doyle," the famous escape artist and the creator of Sherlock Holmes team to solve murders in turn-of-the-last-century London. It is less exciting than it sounds.

It is true that the men knew each other, though not until 20 years after this story is set. In this imaginary timeline, Houdini (Michael Weston) is on an extended engagement in London, where he does his famous water escape before panicked audiences and throws hotel-suite parties whose guests include Yeats, Tesla and Churchill. ("Yeats and Churchill will show up anywhere there's free booze," he confides.)

He and Doyle (Stephen Mangan), who is enjoying a Holmes-free period between killing off the character in "The Final Problem" and bringing him back in "The Adventure of the Empty House," are affectionately antagonistic acquaintances whom fate makes sometimes competitive, sometimes cooperative detectives. Attracted by headlines like "Ghost Killer Stalks Convent" and "Local Man Struck Down by God," the two converge on Scotland Yard.

As in "Castle," it requires only celebrity and a personal friendship with someone in charge to get them their junior investigator badges and an official baby-sitter, the historically premature policewoman Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard), who seeks something more than "a life of pretty dresses and condescension." Tim McInnerny and Adam Nagaitis play the grumbling policemen under whose skins they endlessly get.

Their polar approaches are relentlessly highlighted. Doyle believes there are more things under heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in Houdini's skeptical, scientific philosophy. (The real Doyle thought that Houdini himself had supernatural powers, as much as Houdini insisted otherwise.)

Houdini finds Doyle sadly credulous. Doyle is annoyed by Houdini's American loudness, Houdini by British reserve. Doyle will have to admit that what seems otherworldly might be a clever illusion; Houdini will have to hear mysterious tinkling coming from his piano when no one is around to play it, just to keep that door open.

There is a productive tradition of inserting real people into romantic adventures. Nicholas Meyer paired Sigmund Freud with Holmes in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution"; "Doctor Who" has teamed its time-traveling hero with William Shakespeare, Vincent Van Gogh and Agatha Christie. And it's easy to imagine other odd couples of history as dynamic duos: "The Elvis and Nixon Mysteries," "The Fitzgerald and Hemingway Murders" or "Marx and Eliot, Private Eyes," as in Groucho and T.S. I could play that party game for hours, or 10 minutes at least.

Created by "House" vet David Hoselton and David Titcher ("The Librarian"), the series, which begins Monday, is quite handsomely mounted — the sets are well dressed and wallpapered, the period work as convincing as it needs to be. Though the action tends to plod in the more serious moments — as in Doyle's scenes with his sick wife (Louise Delamere) or when some deep point wants to get made — and though the mysteries themselves are not especially tricky, it is easy enough to watch.

Yet it feels a little wan — not as subtle as it might be on the one hand, or as daffy on the other; one would like it to twinkle harder.

When it does get down to swashbuckling — as when Houdini and Doyle are trapped in rising water under a locked grate or riding the underground to the scene of a crime ("We should have taken my car," says Doyle, "it goes 14 miles an hour") — it can be as fun as the premise promises. But you will have to wait for it.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Houdini and Doyle'

Where: Fox

When: 9 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14 (may contain some material that parents or adult guardians may find unsuitable for children under age 14)

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