“So Scott, as a magician, how do you feel about the new “Masters of Illusion?” on MyTV?”
Well, I’ll give you an answer, but you’ll need some background first.
The series “Masters of Illusion” is produced by the same folks that brought us “The World’s Greatest Magic” specials in the past. If you’re around the same age as me, you grew up watching them on (insert your local broadcaster). These shows exposed our generation to the best and brightest cabaret and stage performers in the world. If you know the names Jeff McBride, Mac King, Max Maven, The Amazing Jonathan, Franz Harary, etc. it’s because:
a) You were sitting in your room, surrounded by magic books and practicing a one-handed fan so you could impress girls, while your peers were actually out on dates.
b) You saw them on one of the World’s Greatest Magic specials.
The annual series set the standard for that generation of stage performers and defined what magic (on stage and screen) would be for the next 15 years. It wasn’t a radical departure from the past, but it was the first time in decades that such a wide range of styles and performers had been captured and shown to a mass audience. To say it was kind of influential would be like saying that it was kind of hard to find work during the Great Depression. The show had a massive impact on the magic world, but began to show its age after countless reruns on the various cable “Family” channels. It seemed like magic on TV would be stuck, stagnant in its stage silliness.
Enter David Blaine. His special “Street Magic” turned the magic world on its head. Television magic went from Mylar costumes and ritualized misogyny to gritty, real-world wonders performed for everyday people. David didn’t create a new genre of magic; he took close-up magic and remade it for the YouTube generation. He understood that audience’s gut reaction was central to sharing the magic with the viewers. He took the camera off himself and pointed it directly at the screaming, awestruck spectators. The gauntlet had been thrown, and all TV magic since then has been informed by the new direction that David Blaine had chosen. He is remembered by the public for his spectacular stunts and physical trials, but he’s more important for rewriting the rules of the magic special.
So it was with great excitement and high expectations that I tuned into the first episode of “Masters of Illusion”. It was produced by the same team that gave us the original World’s Greatest Magic and we’ve had ten plus years of Blaine and his progeny to inspire a new generation of television magician. There was the potential to see an exciting new direction for stage performers with a nod to the past classics of magic. It should have been a wonderful thing.
It wasn’t, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. It was as if Scorsese had produced Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight and we got the over-the-top campiness of Adam West and Caesar Romero instead of the intensity and power of Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Yes, the Adam West Batman is a classic. It was good for it’s time, but times have changed.
The performers featured on the first episode (even the ones I normally respect) just dragged out the same tired tricks, jokes and routines that they’ve always had. Some performers just trotted out the same acts that they’ve been doing on the road for years, with no thought for the challenges (and opportunities) of this newly reborn medium. It seemed as if neither the producers nor performers gave any notice to the fact that the entertainment world had changed radically in the past 20 years. They had a television audience that was primed and waiting for experimentation and innovation. Instead, they chose to give us the same dancers in distress and artificial, preening, pumped up drama. There were a few bright spots: McBride’s “lights” and a new-to-me performer named “Hillel“ who meshed performance art, clowning and magic into a creative and spectacularly weird piece that almost made the entire train wreck worth watching. Sadly, the bulk of the show felt like the zombified corpse of magic specials past.
I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the future of magic, and instead I saw that the present of magic was apparently stuck somewhere in 1982. Maybe the TRS guys can do a sit in with the guilty parties and get them up to speed.
If magic is to be seen as an art, its practitioners (amateurs and pros) need to start treating it as one. That doesn’t mean that it has to be serious, gritty or gruesome, but it must grow. It doesn’t have to abandon it’s rich and wonderful history, but in the world of new media, it must adapt or perish. (See Marco Tempest for a perfect example of classic magic rewritten for the 21st century) Magic on TV has had a well-deserved resurgence in popularity and respectability worldwide thanks to the efforts of David Blaine, Derren Brown and their peers, but it could only take one show like “Masters of Illusion” to kill the genre dead.