Houdini’s Last Secrets is a new, four-part series from the Science Channel, combining family history, potential espionage, and the science behind how Harry Houdini performed some of his most iconic stunts. But this isn’t your typical history show.
Last Secrets is hosted by Houdini’s grand-nephew George Hardeen, who never knew he had an incredibly famous relative until adulthood. Two professionals try to help unlock Houdini’s secrets — stunt-builder Steve Wolf, bringing his expertise to design and build replicas of Houdini’s tricks, and illusionist and escape artist Lee Terbosic to actually perform them, showing exactly how physically and mentally demanding these death-defying stunts were.
Episode 1: The Water Torture Cell
Episode 1 revolves around the Chinese Water Torture Cell, one of Houdini’s most famous tricks, which he performed hundreds of times around the world. Quick summary of the trick: Houdini’s legs were clamped into a set of locks, he was raised into the air by his legs and then lowered into a glass tank of water, with the clamps becoming the lid of the tank.
He had to free his legs, turn around in the tank and hoist himself out, all in one breath. A curtain was raised to hide Houdini as he worked his way out, and he would sometimes stay behind the curtain for 45 minutes to an hour, to get maximum effect from the audience while they waited, not knowing if he had escaped.
In the episode, Hardeen, Wolf, and Terbosic visit several experts on Houdini and magic, to try to discover how the trick was done. The original structure was destroyed in a fire, but a few replicas based on pictures of Houdini exist.
The show follows the team as they attempt to figure out the trick’s secrets, and Terbosic trains to not only contort himself to escape the restraints and limitations of the small tank, but also to meet the challenge of holding his breath long enough to survive the attempt.
While tracking down various pieces of the trick, Hardeen also explores a rumor about Houdini’s exploits beyond illusion. While he traveled the world performing, was Houdini also acting as a spy for the U.S. government? Hardeen meets with former CIA director John McLaughlin to see if Houdini had the qualities that would have made him a good spy.
So is it good?
While there is a certain amount of filler images (fairly typical of shows of this type), and some of the beginning stages of trying to figure out the construction of the trick lag a bit, overall the show is very entertaining and educational in several ways. The background on Houdini is compelling and engaging, with lots of source pictures and even video of Houdini actually performing the trick, and Terbosic’s training and the obstacles he has to overcome to learn to perform the trick are genuinely nerve-wracking. The three main cast members are engaging and obviously genuinely fascinated by Houdini and his tricks, which makes the final performance thrilling.
Since the show is on the Science Channel, it’s both smart and on-brand to center around the history and actual construction and performance of the stunt. The team breaks down all the complications and potential tricks and deceits Houdini used to misdirect the audience, and at the end, they actually reveal the secret to the trick.
This might seem like it takes the fun out of the magic, but in the cast of the Chinese Water Torture Cell, it actually upped my appreciation – it still took a ton of effort from the build team and Terbosic to pull it off, and you get insight into the brilliant mind that created the stunt in the first place.
The debut episode of Houdini’s Last Secrets premieres tonight on Science Channel at 10:00 eastern time.