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Breaking the Magician's Code #2

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Last November’s Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed — fronted by a pro magician wearing a hooded mask over his head — was Fox’s highest-rated special ever. At a time when codes of silence and honor in other quarters of society have eroded to the point of quaintness, giving away the mechanics of magic tricks must have struck millions of viewers as a harmless yet fascinating thrill. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the network has scheduled another exhaustively titled sequel, Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed #2, for the end of the current sweeps period.

Fox was still editing the show at press time, but I’m dubious about its value: After the first special showed us how magicians saw a woman in half, pull a rabbit out of a hat, and make a 7,000-pound elephant disappear (smoke and mirrors, my friend — literally, smoke and mirrors), about the only thing I really want to know about this subject is how the bland Lance Burton keeps getting specials scheduled on top-rated NBC — and that’s something I don’t think the Fox network wants to get into.

Magic pops up regularly all over TV these days — broadcast, cable, even PBS, which recently aired The Art of Magic. (Sad old PBS does its own sort of trick every season: announce a schedule and watch our audience share dwindle!) The deft, uncommonly articulate card manipulator and magic historian Ricky Jay recently hosted a fine, meticulously researched The Story of Magic on A&E. The Learning Channel will offer The Secret World of Magicians and Mentalists, basically a watered-down version of the A&E history; it concludes that ”it’s best to let the secrets remain secrets.” In the wake of Breaking the Magician’s Code, this suddenly seems both courtly and cowardly; do not expect record ratings.

ABC has also gotten into the act, with mixed results. The most entertaining magic hour I’ve ever seen was last year’s David Blaine: Street Magic, in which the young, deadpan, T-shirted prestidigitator walked around the streets of New York City, stunning bystanders with cool card tricks and by levitating off the ground; the show attracted a lot of press and got solid numbers. By contrast, ABC put on Penn & Teller’s Home Invasion Magic in November and lost ratings big time. P&T are crassly funny on their hit-and-run talk-show appearances, but as the hosts of a full hour, they come off as grumpy and condescending.

Which leads me to reveal the best-kept secret about magicians that I’ve figured out: They’re all, to one degree or another, pretty obnoxious. Sometimes it’s a matter of just being too oily slick, as in the case of David Copperfield or the veteran Vegas mutants Siegfried and Roy. Sometimes it’s a question of smugness: Penn & Teller’s we’re-too-good-for-this-trade attitude.

When I think about it, it was really the way David Blaine’s special was shot and edited — in a rough, semi-documentary, spontaneous style — that made it so compelling. Blaine himself came off like such a sullen twit, it didn’t surprise me to read that his gal pal is another sullen twit with talent, Fiona Apple. And even the immensely talented Jay is a bit of a self-satisfied windbag.

What is it about their art that makes so many of its practitioners kinda unlikable? Is it because magic tends to attract shy nerds who must turn themselves into bravado-inflated showmen to go on stage? It makes you wonder whether Harry Houdini was also really, really cranky while trying to wriggle out of those handcuffs and straitjackets.

NBC has just announced that it’s in production with a little something called The World’s Most Dangerous Magic, in which we’ll see tricks that, says the press release, people ”have died performing.” Few other details were forthcoming, but here’s one possibility: Penn & Teller try to cut Fiona Apple in half; they goof, the blade slices through, and we discover that when separated, she’s actually half Joni Mitchell, half Sylvia Plath. Looking on, David Blaine has a heart attack. Oooh, dangerous.

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