Tuesday, May 10, 2016

REVIEW: Houdini & Doyle (ep. 2): A Dish of Adharma

In Houdini & Doyle episode 2, "A Dish of Adharma," our heroes investigate the shooting of a prominent suffragette by a young boy who claims he is avenging his own murder in a past life. For Doyle, this could provide proof of reincarnation. For Houdini, it's a chance to prove Doyle wrong. (Except the real Houdini believed in reincarnation, but more on that later.)

This second episode felt much more like a classic TV police procedural. Maybe too much so. What felt absent was any notion that these are two famous men. Not once does anyone have any reaction to the fact that Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle are suddenly standing in their living rooms. So the fun of the premise is somewhat missing this time. On the other hand, Constable Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard) continues to shine, and I couldn't help but think this series could stand up even if it was just about her.

This episode not only explores the idea of reincarnation, but also equal rights for women and female empowerment. It's a nice undercurrent, even if it all feels a little too contemporary to be challenging. Houdini is presented as being the more sexist of the two men...or maybe he's just trying to get under Adelaide's skin, which brings us to the next point.

There's a suggestion in this episode that Adelaide and Houdini might come together romantically (so that's why Houdini is single in this series). Throughout the episode, they probe each other with "truth trades." At one point Adelaide senses conflict in Houdini and asks, "What did your father do to you?" Houdini answers: "Nothing, I loved my father very much." But Michael Weston, a strong actor, plays the moment in such a way to suggest there clearly is something here. I'm excited to find out what that is.

As for who done it? Well, it turns out the boy is not a reincarnation, and once again Houdini is proven right and Doyle wrong. I'm thinking they'll need to change this up eventually. But what supernatural occurrence will turn out to be unexplainable? We'll have to keep watching to find out.

Just the facts

As mentioned above, this episode shows Houdini being skeptical of the idea of reincarnation. "It's mathematical," he says. "There's a billion more people on the planet than there was 100 years ago. Where's the giant soul factory?" (Good point.) This works well in the context of the show as it sets Houdini and Doyle at odds.

But in reality, Houdini was not only a believer in reincarnation, for a time he was a Doyle-like advocate. He even wrote, produced, and starred in a film, The Man From Beyond, which featured reincarnation as a core theme. It's been said Houdini believed he was the reincarnation of Friedrich von der Trenck, a German spy who had an uncanny ability to escape Prussian jails and who was executed in 1794. On the topic, Houdini wrote:

"But there is something--of that I am convinced--in the theory of reincarnation. Just how much, I cannot say, nor do I believe it will greatly profit us to try and tear aside the veil. In due time it will be lifted, and we shall see beyond with Milton--'the bright countenance of Truth.'"

I should add that later in his life there's evidence that Houdini may have changed his mind about reincarnation.

Besides the mention of his father (whom Houdini did indeed "love very much") the only other factual morsel for us to chew on came during the final scene with Houdini and Constable Stratton having dinner. Here Weston's Houdini mentions his disillusionment with his boyhood hero, Robert-Houdin:

"There's somebody I admired. Idolized even. Robert-Houdin. Greatest magician who ever lived. I named myself after him. The more I studied his act the more I realized he wasn't employing any real skill. Just relying on cheap tricks, juvenile props. In short, he was a fraud."

Houdini did indeed idolize Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin and did name himself after the great French magician. It's also true that he later turned on his idol. But what disillusioned Houdini was his discovery that Robert-Houdin was not the great inventor he claimed to be; that other magicians were responsible for creating effects and establishing firsts credited to the Frenchman. In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, an aggressive exposé of his former hero. It's not a book that was embraced by the magic world then or now, and Robert-Houdin's reputation as "the father of modern magic" remains intact. But Houdini never wavered in his belief that Robert-Houdin was "the prince of pilfers."

Interestingly, Houdini sent Conan Doyle a copy of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin as a means of introduction in 1920.

Finally, what of Houdini's attitude toward women's suffrage and suffragette movement? While Houdini did not involve himself in politics, there is some evidence that he was sympathetic to the movement. In 1908, he accepted a challenge by a group of six Suffragettes to escape from sheets and ropes. After Houdini freed himself, he complimented the women on their abilities, noting that he had never been so securely tied and that it was one of his most difficult escapes.

Below is an original playbill from 1908 Suffragettes Challenge from my own collection.

Next Monday: Houdini & Doyle investigate a faith healer in "In Manus Dei." Houdini & Doyle airs every Monday at 9/8c on FOX. Past episodes can be watched at FOX NOW.



  1. Complimentarily, this review - http://theghostracket.com/2016/04/25/houdini-and-doyle-episode-2-a-dish-of-adharma-reviewed/ - points out that the "truth trade" by paper could not possibly have been performed as shown without relying on either luck or a very shrewd guess by Houdini vis-a-vis Adelaide's character.

  2. The writers have actually completely confused Doyle with Houdini. DOYLE was the guy with father issues, his being an absent alcoholic. It was DOYLE who was in love with another woman while his wife suffered from TB, whereas we all know Houdini was - certainly at this time - super-faithful to Bess. Houdini, of course, knew many working women - all those circus performers, who did it for money AND freedom (remember the beautiful Thardo?). As detailed in the following review, the portrayal of Adelaide is completely wrong historically and not too great dramatically. http://www.houdinifile.com/2016/05/houdini-doyle-dogs-doing-nothing-in.html

    1. Well, true, but I don't think it's fair to slam them SO hard for fictionalizing when they admit upfront what they are presenting is fiction. This isn't like the Houdini miniseries. Doyle's issues with his father do come into play in a later episode. And I prefer the fictional version of Adelaide for the purposes of this show, which I see as light entertainment.

      Really, any bits of real history, such as those I've pointed out above (Robert-Houdin and such), I see as an unexpected treat, and I give the writers credit and thanks for that.

    2. That's my point of view as well; it's a work of fiction inspired by some real historical figures and situations, not a documentary.

  3. I feel like this show is an opportunity to teach, a corny as that sounds. It's clearly fiction, so I'm guessing it will make some people curious about what's true and what isn't. Happy to be here to answer those questions in a friendly way and as a fellow fan. :)

  4. Agreed that it's not a documentary and doesn't claim to be, so feel free to fictionalize. But why bother using historical characters and settings if you're not going to use any real stuff? What's the point? "Sherlock" and "Elementary" do a great job of fictionalizing Holmes, an artistic blend of "The Canon" with free verse. But H&D, IMHO, botch it at both ends. Paging Scully & Mulder! (And hoping future episodes improve.)

    1. Well, if they weren't using Houdini, I wouldn't be watching. :p

      And they do use some real stuff. The USD, Mama, mentions of his father, Robert-Houdin, and some other stuff that we will get into later. So it's a mix of fiction and teeny bits of fact. Like you, I think they could have used even more facts to enhance the fiction, but you gotta leave room for the monsters!

    2. I understand the temptation, when one's pet subject is the basis of a work of fiction, to regret what seem like missed opportunities or misrepresentations, but they would only actually be so if the show was being presented as a documentary. At best, in the longer run, the fiction really serves to attract a new generation of enthusiasts who are motivated to learn more about the real history via resources like this site. It's win/win.

    3. Just so I don't come across as if I'm speaking from an ivory tower, about seven years ago one of my own pet topics - something far more obscure than the lives of Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - became the subject of a big budget feature film. We went into that situation knowing that we weren't going to get verbatim historical accuracy and the outcome was almost entirely positive; our crazily obscure hobby interest suddenly acquired pop-culture currency and many, many people who would never have heard of it otherwise became involved in the hobby. I'm not saying "all publicity is good publicity", but in that case it definitely didn't hurt.

    4. At the risk of getting flamed again, let me confess that I have not made myself clear. I'm all in favor of historical fiction. I've written a historical novel myself, soon to be published. (You can read extracts on The Houdini File.) Fiction writers certainly have license to invent. But, in the interests of art, not history, it seems to me that one should at least make a stab at having the fictional-historical characters share at least some characteristics with the real people. Why portray Houdini as a third-rate hack when he was destroying audiences left and right with mind-blowing material? Why portray Conan Doyle as a wooly-minded woo-woo pest when he was in fact a master of deduction and observation, learned from his medical school professor, and played a signal role in the development of Britain's criminal justice system? Why make the policewoman far duller than Britain's real policewomen? Instead of making the most out of the history AND the fiction, Fox gets the worst of both worlds. And - the poor ratings reflect this. If anything, Fox's hackneyed treatment is far more likely to repel people who might otherwise really get interested. Over and out!

    5. I'm not trying to flame you and I read your own review. IMO Houdini is clearly represented as an expert, hugely famous and popular entertainer, who is always right about there being a non-supernatural cause for a given mystery, but whose brashness frequently causes him to jump the gun.

      Doyle *was* wooly-minded and woo-woo when it came to the occult - he believed in the scientific process, but he wanted and expected it to prove the reality of life after death, which did his lasting reputation no great favors as the debunkings went on and on. His medical expertise and observational powers are, however, frequently crucial to solving the cases in the H&D series.

      I agree that Constable Stratton doesn't have much to do other than referee Houdini and Doyle early on, but she becomes a much more interesting character as the series progresses.

    6. Hey, at least we didn't get the ABC version. Remember the "Modern Day Houdini" sale? It was a female detective teamed with Houdini's ghost!


  5. Saltman go home and leave us alone.......

    1. Hey, David knows his Houdini. No one alive knows more about Houdini in Russia. So he is "home." :)

  6. I have no interest in a fictional Houdini miniseries. All we have ever gotten was a fictional Houdini. It's time for a portrayal of an accurate storyline. Until then I will skip more fiction.

  7. Being set in 1901, Houdini is newly famous. At this point in his life, he was not quite the legend yet. Showing the USD at this point too is also disturbing. He was still doing the handcuff act while closing with the Trunk Trick.

    He had started to do challenges from other items at that time getting out of safes and such.

    And I thought TB was contagious. Doyle would not be able to get that close to his wife.

    If they wanted to build up to a romance, they should have the police woman named Jean instead of Adelaide and have Doyle and her slowly liking each other.

    At least they had the decency of not calling Arthur, Sir yet. He wasn't knighted at the time, so at least they got that right.