Is magic hip? Are illusionists like David Copperfield and David Blaine still culturally relevant in 2018? Middle-aged Las Vegas tourists aside, who attends magic shows for entertainment? Are they aged between 18-49? These are just some of the questions that passed through my mind during a recent screening of the pilot episode of ABC’s upcoming magic/illusion-themed show Deception.
The show officially kicks off on March 11, and stars Jack Cutmore-Scott (Kingsman, Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life) as Cameron Black, the world’s most famous magician and illusionist.
Cameron finds his career and personal life ruined following a surprising chain of events (that we won’t ruin for you here). After the trauma, he vows to get his life back on track and find those responsible for setting him up, but it’s not until a full year later, while sitting defeated in a local bar that he notices a clue on a TV report about a plane explosion. Cameron recognizes a magic trick when he sees one, and knows the plane did not in fact explode, but was cleverly made to ‘disappear’ just like in one of his previous shows. Armed with this knowledge, and a sense of injured pride at seeing his own trick used in a crime, Cameron takes action, and it’s not long before he manages to worm his way into the FBI team investigating the case as a sort of consulting illusionist — with a personal angle. Because television.
The parallels to ABC’s former juggernaut Castle are obvious, and it’s clear the Network is striving for another win here by repeating what worked well before. Cameron is an overly confident and somewhat cheeky student of human nature with a heart of gold, and also the funny man to Ilfenesh Hadera’s by-the-book, boots on the ground, laser-focused FBI agent, Kay Daniels. Sound familiar?
It takes mere seconds to establish and digest this couple’s quirky odd couple dynamic, brimming as it is with familiar quips, the odd saucily inappropriate remark, fast witty banter and just a smidge of budding sexual tension. In fact, it seems at times that we are looking at Richard Castle and Kate Beckett — just performed now by other actors. However these facts are in no way intended to dissuade you from checking out Deception. In fact, they work in the show’s favor. There is both comfort and familiarity to be found in TV tropes (procedural dramas wouldn’t exist without them), and both Hadera and Cutmore-Scott fill their given roles admirably, and look gorgeous while doing so.
Cutmore-Scott is additionally admirable in his ability to negotiate that fine line between entertaining and irritating as a somewhat egotistical peacock who is used to being recognized, and adored, but who also has a soft and vulnerable core.
There’s not much to dislike, and fans of Castle who were not disgruntled by its sloppily handled ending may just find something that resonates here.
Unlike Castle, there are two teams of secondary characters to be found in Deception. Cameron’s eclectic and carefully diverse team of illusion specialists includes Vinnie Jones as Gunter Gustafsen — who is regularly on hand to angrily remind Cameron his latest trick “is not safe” and that he could “plunge to his death at any moment.” (Poor exasperated Gunter is often dismissed out of hand because Cameron Black laughs in the face of sloppy rigging, apparently.) Aiding the larger than life Gunter are Dina (Lenora Crichlow) and Jordan (Justin Chon), whose vaguely defined magic know-how will no doubt morph to cover whatever prop or illusion Cameron and the FBI team require each week. Need to print a fake 3D gun in a hurry? Got it! Require a clever ten foot cityscape painted on plasterboard to fit deceptively across an alleyway? On it!
On the FBI side there is cranky (because reasons!) FBI director Deakins (Laila Robins) and Kay’s cuddly and amiable assistant Mike (Amaury Nolasco) whose only memorable line in the pilot is “It’s Cameron Black!” (He gets to say it a lot.)
The series comes from writer and executive producer Chris Fedak (he of Chuck fame) and executive producers Greg Berlanti (basically all the CW’s current superhero shows), Martin Gero (Blindspot) and Sarah Schechter. Illusionist David Kwong (the puzzle creator and consultant behind the Now You See Me movies) also co-produces, and the opening moments of the pilot almost feel like a deleted scene from the the franchise.
Ultimately though, your taste for Deception may not hinge on how familiar the characters seem, but on how much you like magic tricks — which brings us back to those nagging questions I mentioned at the start of this review. Is a TV show about magic tricks going to be a hit with a tech-savvy young audience who would rather google how a trick is performed than sit through a two hour magic show? It’s hard to say, but with Deception filling a 2018 mid-season slot and not a Fall 2017 primetime spot, perhaps those worries were felt elsewhere too. However, it is not a TV critic’s job to correctly guess whether a show will have longevity or not (our micro focus can make us the worst people for that job), but to critique what lies before us. Which brings us to a final observation.
An illusionist’s greatest challenge is to make it all look and feel believable, while delivering an unexpected “Tah Dah!” moment of surprise. The audience has to believe their card floated through the air, somehow disappeared and then reappeared, folded inside your coat pocket.
And if the sceptics among us can’t bring ourselves to believe in the magic involved, then we should at the very least remain confounded and impressed about the manner in which the feat was achieved.
An illusionist’s trick and a TV show share something in common, with the creators of Deception facing a similar challenge.
Not only must the characters seem authentic, relatable and credible, but the various illusions and tricks on display (the show within the show) must, at the very least, seem technically possible too, particularly as the audience is, for the most part, “in on the game” and aware how many of the tricks are set up beforehand. Still, there are moments where the results feel manufactured — in this instance, where the TV magic has failed.
Instead of addressing that nagging feeling of phoniness that dogs the show at intervals, making things seem a little less real, and therefore a little less organic in terms of our ability to feel surprised or shaken, Deception enthusiastically leans even further into the spectacle and the showmanship.
Shush! Don’t think about all that. Don’t look at what the other hand is doing. Look this way. Here’s a car chase!
A little like an illusionist diverting your attention with a flourish of one hand while he reshuffles the deck with the other, we find ourselves side-tracked by gunfire, fist fights, and explosions, all designed to distract us from thinking too deeply about how the bad guys fell for the last illusion we just saw.
Silly? Yes, a little. Campy? Certainly. Entertaining? At times. Surprising? Not nearly enough.
There is a moment in the pilot episode where a hurt Cameron realizes his new partner has never watched a single one of his shows — ever.
“It’s not you,” she tells him. “I don’t like magic,” and I would have finished this review with those parting words if not for the memory of the show’s opening scene in which Cameron Black comes front and center on the TV screen, and addressing the TV audience, invites us to take part in a card trick. I won’t reveal what happens here but I will admit to laughing out loud with delight at the unexpected end result.
See? Magic can be fun, when it’s capable of genuinely surprising its audience.
If Deception can do more of that going forward — if it can find a way to razzle dazzle us with some TV magic — we’d be happy to forgive its more campy and vaudevillian overtones.
Deception premieres Sunday, March 11 (10:01-11:00 p.m. EDT), on ABC.