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Not Necessarily a Plethora of Options

timthumbFor the most part there just isn’t a lot of magic on television. I mean magic shows, magicians. It is, of course, something of a niche market and really a specialty item. As it should be.

But that does mean that when magic shows do come on television then magicians like me flock to them desperate to be entertained. We hunger for the opportunity to see something new and different, to see something that might challenge us or inspire us to engage.

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that there are two new shows on television for magicians to enjoy. The bad news is that you’re only going to enjoy one of them.

Well, that’s what I think anyway. And if you are anything like me, you want the bad news first so you can get it out of the way.

So, The CW is airing a show called Masters of Illusion. What a disappointment. In truth I only heard about this show at all because one of my mentors (Jeff McBride) will be appearing on it, so he announced it on his Facebook feed. I have watched four episodes so far and I have yet to see an episode where he appears but I am dreading it. Not because Jeff will be bad, far from it. In point of fact my feeling is that many of the magicians appearing on this show are probably quite brilliant.

The problem is the editing. It’s terrible.

Allow me to explain. Magic as an art requires at least a small amount of time for every magician to establish themselves and their character on stage. This can be done relatively quickly or it can take a bit longer, especially if you have information you want the audience to know before you start performing the effect. We need that time to establish the storyline and to create the right mood to build the effect.

Some years ago for about five years running at Thanksgiving a magic show aired called Worlds Greatest Magic (which was, by the way, the first time I ever saw Jeff McBride perform). This show would feature about 8 magicians and would take an hour to run. There would be a host and even some magic taught to the viewing audience. But because the format was as long as it was all of the magicians were given a decent slice of time to not only establish themselves and their act, but to be properly introduced and lauded for their accomplishments (winner of this award or that award, voted best magician by this group, etc, etc, etc), so that the audience could truly appreciate who these performers were and what they had accomplished in order to be considered among the “Worlds Greatest”.

The editors at The CW seem to think that they can take the same basic show and cram it into half an hour. No lessons, almost nothing in the way of introductions, no chances at all for the magicians to establish themselves or their acts on stage. Every aspect of the show is rushed and as a result nothing is particularly entertaining.

It’s clear that these are some talented magicians for the most part (okay, yes, a couple are really surprisingly bad from my personal perspective). And I’m sure that given a more reasonable amount of time they could, in fact, be vastly more interesting than The CW seems to be willing to allow them and that is a real shame.

Magic as an art form, as an entertainment can be one of the most satisfying not just for the performers but for an audience that really is drowning in the vast mediocrity of television options. Little would have to change right now for the show to be improved ten fold. Make the show an hour long and give those same magicians a nicer slice of time and they will do the rest. Guaranteed. The CW would have a winner on its hands.

But I did say there was good news too, didn’t I? Well there is and it comes in the form of yet another Penn & Teller show called Wizard Wars.

Competition shows have become a pretty solid mainstay of television fair right now, and SyFy has come up with a number of them over the years that have been just eccentric enough to win them some solid ratings. Well, SyFy has taken a chance on magicians this time with Penn & Teller at the helm.

Wizard Wars is a competition show where two teams of magicians come in, are handed a stack of random everyday objects and told “Go make a magic act using all this junk.” Then the teams come back, compete against each other for an audience and a panel of judges consisting of Penn & Teller and two other judges. The winning team moves on to the next round where they will compete against two of the four “Wizards” to create yet another original piece of magic with a whole new pile of random objects.

If the competitors win they get $10,000.

All of this takes place in a nice comfortable hour long block were we get to see each of the four “Wizards” do a little something, we get to learn about the competitors and what they do, we get to see four full acts from start to finish, and we get to learn a little something from Penn & Teller as well.

There has only been one episode of Wizard Wars to date and already I am totally blown away. And I think that the magic I’ve seen in Wizard Wars is significantly better than what I’ve seen on four episodes of Masters of Illusion.

Okay, so I don’t have a lot of options to watch magic on television, and I’ll keep watching Masters of Illusion because I’m fairly certain that The CW knows that my lack of choice guarantees them at least some audience share. But Wizard Wars wins this war in my opinion hands down.

BONUS: Penn & Teller ran a show over in the UK for the past couple of years called Penn & Teller: Fool Us which was another competition type show. Performers came on, did their acts and if they were good enough to fool Penn & Teller, then they got to come to Vegas to open for Penn & Teller in their theatre.

All those episodes are now airing here in the US. Yes, I watched several of them on YouTube, but they are here now on broadcast television, so one more option for my magic viewing pleasure!

Criss Angel, Jackass.

I have never exactly been a fan of Criss Angel.  I have been willing to give him his props.  I mean, lets face it, the guy is on TV and he has a permanent theater at The Luxor in Las Vegas.  Clearly he’s doing something right.

But not for me.

He’s been doing magic all his life, but when he first really rose above the sight line that I am aware of, he was doing very heavy, very dark presentations.  He had a really strong “Heavy Metal/Goth” vibe going and he was doing things that had a lot of scary themes and graphic visuals in it.  And, again, to give him credit, he was pretty darn good at it.

He just didn’t appeal to me, though I know in those early days of his broader public appeal my apprentice really did seem to enjoy what he was doing.

When he got to his “MindFreak” days on TV, he was doing each episode as a collection of magic effects ending with some really big escape stunt after the last commercial break.  Which, of course, was being hyped through the entire show.  A reasonable formula, but since I generally am not interested in escapes as magic (I like escapes I just don’t think they are ‘magic’), I was rarely interested in the last part of the show.  As the escapes got bigger they didn’t really get better, they just got bigger. And in some cases, stupider.   (Surviving inside a crate with some C4.  Really?)

This latest television series he is doing is called “BeLIEve”.  Yes with the funky caps.  Notice that the word “believe” contains the word “lie”.  Yes, there is a deeper philosophical and non-performance magic related discussion there, but I’m going to stay away from it for now.  You’re welcome.

The point of “BeLIEve” is that he is attempting things which are supposed to be done purely through physical training and skill.  I’m not sure what the means exactly since that is just as valid a definition for what we magician’s do as well.  The big point is that he’s supposedly doing all this stuff “for real” instead of using any trickery.  For example the first episode, called “Blind”, saw Criss walking a suspended beam 30 feet in the air which had a two food wide gap in the middle he would have to traverse while blindfolded.

He kept making a big deal about the idea that “no one had ever done this before” but blindfolded tightrope walkers have been around for a long time.  His “gap” in the middle is an interesting twist, but not exactly something I would call spectacularly different.  But again, credit where credit is due, this is an interesting spin on classic circus skills and would require some pretty serious training.

In fact we know it took serious training because Criss had help from a friend who does a tightrope act for Cirque Du Soleil.  Well, “friend”, sure.  Or maybe a guy they hired, I don’t know.  And boy did we get to see all the training.  His big deal sticking point was that he was absolutely determined to do this stunt without a safety harness.  So through the whole episode we heard “no harness! no harness! no harness! wah, they’re going to make me wear a harness” which seemed utterly ingenuous to me because I just can’t imagine any place that would let him do the stunt without safety gear in place, or that The Luxor, which has invested millions of dollars in Criss as a property would let him do something that would truly be that stupid.  So the harness thing seemed very trumped up to me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There were also all the ‘tricks’ that Criss did while the episode was working it’s way up to it’s big stunt finally (sound like the formula is familiar?  Yeah, I noticed it right away too.)

The thing about “street magic” on TV is that it isn’t really street magic.  It’s safer to say that it’s impromptu magic.  Everyone you see on the TV already knows that they are about to see some magic.  They’ve already been approached by a manager, in some cases they’ve taken the time to get some paperwork signed, and generally speaking they have been prepared to see some magic performed.  Let’s face it, if suddenly a camera crew appears around you than you probably know something is up.

At best you can say that they may have no advanced knowledge beyond “hey kids!  Let’s watch the magician and we’re going to be on TV!”

Watching the stuff I watched however, I find it almost impossible to believe that any of those tricks being done were anything other than staged effects with shills everywhere.  The production value of the presentations made me absolutely convinced that these people were on the payroll.  And that’s to bad, because much of what we saw during the “MindFreak” episodes was actually much closer to “street magic” then what we are seeing in “BeLIEve.”

So, we get to the end of “Blind”, Criss has walked the I-Beam of Death(TM) and now it’s on to the next episode.

The next episode, “Cement Grave”, is clearly some variation on a buried alive effect.  The crappy tricks are still staged crappy tricks.  The artificial two week deadline to get the effect ready is over hyped.  And Criss engages in “training” himself to be able to do the things he needs to do, one of which is be able to hold his breath for an extended period of time.

And here it is, folks.  Here is why I now think Criss Angel is a total Jackass.  Every nice thing I said before, every inch of wiggle room I gave with regards to “well, he’s good but just not my taste for entertainment” goes flying out the window.

You see, in order to train himself to be able to hold his breath for extended periods of time Criss gets in contact with an ex-Navy Seal buddy of his and he has himself water boarded.

That’s right, Criss Angel is getting himself water boarded ON F*CKING TV!!!!!

This abhorrent, disturbing, despicable form of TORTURE is being used as a “training” method to get ready for A F*CKING ESCAPE STUNT!!!!  How many people across the country were suddenly having to turn away from this horrible site they were suddenly confronted with?   Because there was no warning.  One minute we’re listening to Criss talk about getting some help to learn how to hold his breath and the next minute we suddenly looking at TORTURE!!!


Okay, maybe, just maybe, there was a reason the could be given to justify this as a method for training oneself to hold their breath.  I don’t believe that such a reason is likely to be valid since I know there are plenty of far less violent ways to train yourself to do the same thing.  But let’s just say that this was the method that had to be used.  Let’s suppose that all other avenues were exhausted and there was a damn good reason to use water boarding.

It doesn’t change the simple fact that water boarding is a terrible thing.

It doesn’t change the fact that you would have to be a blind ass moron to not be aware of the impact it’s had on us in terms of legal questions and psyche questions.

It doesn’t change the fact that the choice to put this on television was a deliberate one.

There is only one reason that someone would stoop so low as to put that on TV as “entertainment.”  Shock value.  Well, I’m shocked alright.

And for that particular bit of transgression Criss Angel has dropped to the very bottom of the heap for me.

I am done.

A Lesson in “Everything Old is New Again”

As a general rule there really isn’t much magic on television.  In a sense this is both a good thing and a bad thing.

It is a bad thing because it starves a lot of magic fans of entertainment that they want to see.

It is a good thing because it doesn’t glut the market or dull the potential audience to possible entertainment options.

So, when something comes on that I wasn’t aware of I try and catch as much of it as I can and “Magic Man” on the Travel Channel is the latest bit of television magic I have found.  The magician is guy named J.B. Benn.  He is billed as one of the worlds most famous close-up magicians.  Which naturally means that I’ve never heard of him.

The general premise of the show is that he goes to some destination spot and he does street and bar magic.  I have very mixed feelings about the whole show honestly.  I have watched five or six of the half-hour long episodes and it seems like it kind of misses the mark both as a show featuring a destination spot and as a show featuring a magician.

They never really tell you very much about the spot he is in.  Not even as much as you would likely find out if you simply did a quick Google search on the location in question.

The magic he does is solid in terms of being entertaining and extremely skillful.  But they have virtually nothing to do with the location he’s at.  He doesn’t seem to take the time to create presentations that take real advantage of where he is at for story telling or background purposes, except in the most perfunctory ways.  In fact, of all the magic I have seen him do so far, about 90% of it is material that I am aware of as being popularly available in the 90’s.  I could literally sit there and tell you effect by effect what he was doing and from what magician it was marketed.

Now, the truth is that I myself have been feeling the pinch of my current repertoire becoming stale.  And knowing that I have a pretty substantial library and magic collection it makes sense that I should dive into it in order to find “new” things for me to do.  Everything old is new again.

But I have to admit to a significant amount of disappointment in seeing things that this “world famous” magician was doing which barely deviated from the store bought directions and “patter.”  Yet here he is with his own TV show.  So clearly he is doing something right, even if it is just selling himself successfully to The Travel Channel.

I guess the lesson is that while “Everything Old is New Again” seems like a good foundation, it isn’t going to be artistically satisfying without a healthy dose of personalization and personality.  And I’m okay with that.

Below is a clip from the show.  It is one I selected as being pretty indicative of everything I’ve seen so far.  I won’t give anything away, but let me just say that the effect you are going to see is almost exactly as I learned it from one of the magicians who was a very early on formative teacher of mine in the mid 90’s.

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