TV preview: Two Victorian dramas, but only one is dreadful

penny dreadful showtime

As evidence of the logjam of scripted TV dramas currently vying for attention, look no further than the beginning of May, which features premieres for two Victorian-era series. In an upset, neither airing on PBS.

While the third-season return of Showtime's "Penny Dreadful" is cause for celebration to those drawn in by its ghoulish charms, Fox's new "Houdini & Doyle" is actually more deserving of the "dreadful" label.

At the risk of accentuating the negative, the second show is still interesting, if only as a case study in how what must have sounded promising on paper can go awry. And while fans of the magician Harry Houdini and/or Sherlock Holmes -- the durable sleuth created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- might be understandably intrigued, what they'll find is a half-baked version of "The X-Files," dressed up in period garb circa 1900.

As it turns out, Houdini (played by Michael Weston) and Doyle ("Episodes'" Stephen Mangan) were indeed contemporaries and interacted, a plot already explored in the "Houdini" miniseries that played on A&E. Moreover, Houdini was indeed famously skeptical of psychics, spiritual mediums and the like, while Doyle and his wife were far more open to it.

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That foundation has been used by producer David Shore ("House") and his collaborators to conjure the wispiest of dramas, one that turns the mismatched duo into adjunct investigators for New Scotland Yard. And yes, they probe cases with potential paranormal explanations, with a policewoman (Rebecca Liddiard) -- an acknowledged oddity for the time -- uncomfortably refereeing as they bicker.

If that sounds ridiculous, rest assured, it is. But this Canadian-British production, its handsome trappings notwithstanding, fits like a glove with Fox's penchant for serving up buddy cop shows with unorthodox characters. That list includes a pre-cognitive psychic ("Minority Report"), Frankenstein-like animated man ("Second Chance") and the Devil himself ("Lucifer") -- and that's just this season.

Like "Houdini & Doyle," "Penny Dreadful" has sought to capitalize on familiar literary names (Frankenstein and Dorian Gray among them) as a marketing hook. Happily, though, series creator John Logan has put them together in a lush, florid atmosphere that feels fresh, provocative and organically adorned with enough sex and violence to fit right in on pay cable.

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The new season picks up where the second left off, with key characters scattered across the globe. The psychic Vanessa (Eva Green) faces a formidable new supernatural threat, and seeks counsel from a therapist, played by Broadway star Patti Lupone, who returns in this new role. Meanwhile, the tormented Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) has been extradited to America for his past sins, which continue to haunt him.

And so it goes. Logan has shrewdly piled on new characters, tinged with knowing glimmers of recognition. So naturally, to whom would an emotionally bereft Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) turn to after losing control of his creations than one of his former university chums, a bloke with his own problems named Dr. Jekyll?

Put side by side, "Penny Dreadful" and "Houdini & Doyle" illustrate how it's possible in TV -- and thanks to the broadcast/premium cable divide, increasingly likely -- to take similar ingredients and concoct two very different dishes with them. In this case, while one is zesty and rich, the other proves so bland that those who sample it won't need to be magicians to execute their escape.

"Penny Dreadful" premieres May 1 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

"Houdini & Doyle" premieres May 2 at 9 p.m. on Fox.


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