Tuned In

Taking the Magic Out of Magic

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Karol, with the Jeff Goldblum trap of death. NBC Photo: Hopper Stone

“Is the impossible possible?” asked Tim Vincent, host of NBC’s Phenomenon. Why, yes. Yes it is. I had expected the live TV “mentalist” competition to be bombastic, cheesy, over-the-top and ludicrous–none of which adjectives, by the way, is an insult when you’re talking about a magic performance. What I didn’t expect was for it to be so boring, which is a near-impossible accomplishment when you’re talking about an hour of TV involving performers slamming their fingers in bear traps and firing nail guns at their heads.

Part of the problem with the show was simply that it managed to stuff so little into that hour: four psychics/death-defiers out of 10 contestants actually made it on stage. Part of that owes to the intro and build-up to each stunt and—even though I’m admittedly not a huge fan of magic–I’m willing to accept that: building up suspense is part of the act. But the show was also padded out with intros of judges Uri Geller and Criss Angel and an “interactive” Geller performance in which he attempted to blast a Zener card symbol into the home audience’s minds. What should have been breathtaking ended up plodding.

But a big flaw of the show may be its American Idol concept, in which Angel and Geller judged each performance after it was finished. Part of the thrill of a magic performance, after all, is the tension between skepticism and the tension of disbelief. Even if you’re convinced the act can’t be real and are looking for the hidden wires or signals, there needs to be a corner of your mind that thinks it could, just possibly, be real.

But hearing the judges, especially Angel, critique the tricks as tricks, the performances as performances, dispelled the illusion, or the illusionists. “You have a decent stage persona,” Angel told one–mentioning, in passing, another magician whom Angel credited with pioneering the trick. “I just didn’t feel you were 100% committed to who you are in your mind.” Look, I’m sure there are few people in the audience who thought they were witnessing supernatural phenomena in an NBC show guest-starring Carmen Electra. But there’s something kind of sad about taking an art based on wonder and focusing on the most non-wondrous, show-bizzy aspect of it.

On the other hand, Angel does at least seem to take the performance seriously–very seriously. “I want to applaud NBC for allowing a demonstration like this,” he said after nail-gun guy, as though the network had just given over an hour of primetime to a telethon for famine relief. And there was still a wacky brilliance to some of the pieces, as when mind-over-matter mentalist Jim Karol showed that he could overcome the pain of being caught in a bear trap by having guest Rachel Hunter concentrate on a celebrity (who, Karol correctly guessed, was Jeff Goldblum).

If you want a spellbinding, non-jaded demonstration of magic on Wednesday nights, your best bet is still Pushing Daisies. I may watch Phenomenon again. But I’ll have to close my eyes and think of Jeff Goldblum to get through it.