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TV Picks: 'Houdini,' 'Breathless,' 'Doctor Who'

History snags Adrien Brody and goes Houdini

Oscar-winner Adrien Brody is the obvious draw for History's four-hour, two-part bio-pic "Houdini," which attempts to show the man behind the great-escape legend. That it winds up spending most of its time showcasing all the escapes, relying almost entirely on a voiceover to fill in the "man behind" bits, is no fault of Brody or, indeed, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer ("The Seven-Percent Solution," "The Human Stain.") As interesting as Houdini's obvious flirtation with death might be, the psychology, for once, pales in comparison with its physical manifestation.

In other words, the tricks were amazing! And this film shows us how he did many of them! That not all of the escapades featured are historically documented, well, History, which should perhaps change its name a third time to "History," has been smudging the lines of scholarship for a while now, especially since it got into the docudrama business.

Further blurring the accuracy issue is the fact that Meyer is working from the 1976 book "Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait," which was written by his own father (although he also appears to have at least read "The Secret Life of Harry Houdini" by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.) Not surprisingly, some Houdini super-fans have already expressed great concern.

They needn't have bothered. Although Brody certainly lends a haunted/obsessive air to the proceedings, the psychology explored in "Houdini" is garden-variety. Houdini was famously attached to his mother, and here he is also a little afraid of a disapproving father, seen only briefly as a rabbi so rigid he refuses to learn English.

Houdini's marriage to fellow vaudevillian Bess (Kristen Connolly) is explored in a mostly cursory manner (his infidelities chalked up to his well-camouflaged vulnerabilities), his relationship with other magicians and escape artists, including his brother, merely brushed upon.

Instead, "Houdini" spends most of its time chronicling all the daring escapes, including those that may not have actually happened, at least not in the way they are depicted here.

Did Houdini actually jump into a frozen river while in chains, as the film's opener posits? Maybe, maybe not. Did he serve as a spy for the British and American governments in the years leading up to World War I? Maybe, maybe not.  Does it even matter? Maybe, maybe not.

Houdini was always as much myth as man -- no one exploited the public's desire to be thrilled by deception more than Harry Houdini (born, after all, Erik Weisz) -- with all manner of biographies and exhibits examining his magic tricks, feats of escape and, later, obsession with the spirit world.

In the end, the force that propels "Houdini" is not so much "why" but "how" and "what." As in, how did he do that trick, and what is he going to do next? History, Monday and Tuesday, 9 p.m.

"Breathless": For those who find "The Knick" too gory and "Masters of Sex" too graphic, the answer may be found, as answers so often are, on PBS, where a period medical drama addresses all the social repressions and technological limitations of the 1960s, while throwing in a dash of soap and a hint of mystery.

"Pirates of the Caribbean's" Jack Davenport stars as super doc Otto Powell, who in between fabulous diagnoses and flawless surgeries, flirts with nurses and the "darker" side of medicine. He's got a secret, of course -- more than one, actually -- but the mystery arrives late in the first episode in the form of Chief Inspector Ronald Mulligan ("Game of Thrones'" Ian Glen) who apparently knew Powell "back in Cyprus," where the two, and Powell's perpetually agitated colleague Dr. Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) served, it seems, in the military together.

Meanwhile, the many women of the piece, including two nurses who are also sisters (Zoe Boyle and Catherine Steadman), struggle against the confines of pre-feminist-revolution womanhood. With period pieces a dime a dozen these days, the past has become as familiar as the present, though "Breathless" does all the accoutrement very well. The performances are, of course, universally solid, and if "Breathless" isn't saying anything new about the old days -- women had it tough! repression is bad! -- what it does have to say, it says very well. PBS, Sundays, 9 p.m.

"Doctor Who": Out with the old, in with the ... old? There's a new Doctor in the house, and he's a doozy. Having survived more than 900 years, countless battles and a 50th anniversary that got a little crazy, our gallant Time Lord has regenerated for the 12th (or 13th, or 14th if you count that bad movie) time, shifting from the impish visage of Matt Smith to the more clenched and furrowed mein of Peter Capaldi, whose tagline might turn out to be "I don't think I'm a hugging kind of person."

Having established in last week's premiere that both the Doctor's companion and his audiences love him as they ever did, the question becomes: How will Capaldi's incarnation face up against the Doctor's old enemies, the Daleks? BBC America, Saturdays, 9 p.m.

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