Psychoanalyzing Houdini | An Ambitious Miniseries Gets Inside the Escape Artist’s Head

TV Reviews: August 27-Sept. 2, 2014

Houdini begins with a striking image of the escape artist Harry Houdini (Adrien Brody) perched on a bridge, shackled, as he works up the nerve to jump into the icy water below. The first sound we hear is a ghostly woman’s voice whispering, “Harry, can you hear me?” We have no idea where the voice is coming from or what the words mean, but it immediately establishes a dreamlike quality for this ambitious miniseries (Monday, 8 p.m., History Channel).

“Dreamlike” is an appropriate tone for a biopic that attempts to psychoanalyze Houdini, the one-of-a-kind phenomenon from the early 20th century. It gets inside his head to figure out why he risked his life to amaze his audiences: dangling from skyscrapers in a straitjacket, immersing himself upside down in a “Chinese Water Torture Cell,” and the other creative stunts we still remember him for. In director Uli Edel’s hands, that interior landscape is a phantasmagoria of nightmares, doubts and Oedipal obsessions (weak father, doting mother). As a result, the production has emotional resonance. It’s more than just a dutiful slog through Houdini’s life, from his impoverished immigrant upbringing to his breakthrough as a vaudeville sensation.

While the first 90 minutes are perfectly realized, the second half sags. Like its predecessor, the 1953 Tony Curtis movie of the same name, Houdini unwisely starts making stuff up. Drawing on the thinnest evidence, it fabricates a spy career for its hero and a marijuana habit for his wife, Bess (Kristen Connolly). It also strains to pin his untimely death on the phony mediums he dedicated himself to exposing.

But don’t bail out before the last scene, following the funeral. Having been inside his head, we know that Houdini ultimately desired to escape from death itself. So it’s chilling to see Bess at a séance, whispering, “Harry, can you hear me…?”

American Masters
Friday, 8:30 pm (PBS)

Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning tells the story of the photographer best known for documenting the Great Depression, most notably the iconic image of suffering she called “Migrant Mother.” Lange was a bohemian artist who shunned conventional family life (much to her children’s dismay) to immerse herself in her work. With funding from the New Deal, she fearlessly walked through shantytowns, dust storms and waterfront strikes to put a face on the Depression’s miseries. People had never seen such beautifully composed photographs of grim reality.

The documentary is directed and narrated by Lange’s granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor, who organizes it around black-and-white footage of Lange putting together a one-woman show for the Museum of Modern Art in 1964. In her old age, Lange herself proves to be an intriguing camera subject, given to grand pronouncements about her art. “Beauty appears when one feels deeply,” she says. “It is an act of total attention.”

I recommend giving total attention to this irresistible documentary.

Redwood Kings
Friday, 8 pm (Animal Planet)

You can practically smell the sawdust in this reality series about twin brothers who run a California wood-carving business. Actually, the phrase “wood carving” doesn’t really do it justice. The Daniels boys salvage enormous redwoods, then use enormous chainsaws to shape them into mind-blowing play structures. This is whittling on an epic scale.

You can’t help but hold your breath waiting for someone to lose a limb as the brothers play with their dangerous equipment. As one of their crew members says when chopping down a 20,000-pound tree, “In this situation, a lot of things can go wrong.”

Ya think?

Sunday, 7 pm (Fox)

Based on a Dutch program, this new variation on Survivor sends 15 people to an isolated, amenity-free location for a year and instructs them to build their own dream society from scratch. They will have to write their own rules, create their own power structures, forge their own approach to religion, and develop their own social mores. “This is going to be a life-changing, world-changing experience,” says one contestant, slightly overestimating the influence of a Sunday-night reality series.

If Utopia sounds familiar, it is. The Pilgrims tried the same social experiment when they sailed to North America in the 1600s. Even the elimination element – in which contestants can be banished and replaced by members of the viewing audience – is reminiscent of the Pilgrims’ penchant for exiling sinners.

Given that Utopia is following the same path in one season that the United States did over the course of 400 years, it’s easy to predict how things will turn out: revolution, civil war, the invention of television, and the proliferation of dopy, high-concept reality series. Been there, done that.

The Strain
Sunday, 9 pm (FX)

The exciting series tops itself with an episode set almost entirely inside a convenience store. As a vampire-creating virus spreads throughout New York City, ghouls reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead lurch through the streets in search of human flesh. Our heroes from the Centers for Disease Control hole up in the store with a veteran vampire hunter as monsters bang on the glass, climb onto the roof and search for any possible way to get inside. All looks lost until the survivors discover that the slobbering, squealing fiends are vulnerable to ultraviolet light. Literally, a ray of hope!

Despite a few nice touches of black humor, this is a tense, emotional hour of TV. The vampires are terrifying, especially when gooey tentacles shoot out of their mouths and clamp onto a victim. But grotesquerie isn’t the point here; humanity is. We come to care for the people trapped inside because Chuck Hogan’s script takes the time to characterize them.

I urge you to watch this week’s episode of The Strain. I also urge you — and I can’t emphasize this strongly enough — to stock up on ultraviolet lights.