Deception is the imitation butter spread of crime shows

March 14, 2018

The premise of Deception, ABC’s new mid-season police procedural, is really fun: professional stage magician Cameron Black uses his expertise to help the FBI catch bad guys as he hunts for the illusionist with a grudge against him. So it’s basically Castle, but with a magician instead of a mystery writer. Great idea! But that’s where the greatness stops. Deception is the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter of both crime shows and magic. You can see the resemblance to the real thing, but it’s only a satisfying substitute if you’re desperate.

We’ll get to how it fails the magic community in a minute, because magical authenticity isn’t the show’s remit, presenting an engaging cast solving crimes is. And therein lies the first problem with Deception: you won’t particularly like anybody on the show. The character of Cameron Black is supposed to be a magician on par with David Copperfield, someone flashy enough to have had several TV specials and Las Vegas runs. Jack Cutmore-Scott is a perfectly decent actor, but as Black he exudes none of the charisma that a magician of that level requires. You can’t imagine him holding the attention of the people in an ATM kiosk, let alone an entire theater. He’s a 30-something white guy and…that’s the most distinct thing you can say about him. He starts off going for a House-esque obnoxious arrogance, but that falls by the wayside once he needs the FBI’s help.

He’s not the only one lacking any kind of definition to his character. Ilfenesh Hadera is Kay Daniels, the FBI Agent straight from the “Normal Person to contrast with Quirky Main Character” playbook. I’m assuming we’ll find out at some point that the death of one of her parents is why she’s in the FBI. She does the little she’s asked to do, which is mostly tell Black he’s not as charming as he thinks he is, and give him a pretty smile when it’s time to let the audience know it’s ok to like him.

She is, at least, treated like a competent agent, which is better than the way Deception handles the rest of the FBI. Not only do they let a civilian walk onto an active crime scene and later let him take over their entire investigation, they also gawp like besotted fans. Apparently in order for Black to look smart, everyone around him has to look dumb. It’s a tired trope that can work when the ensemble is fun to watch, but nobody in Deception has any chemistry with each other. They’re all doing their part and saying their lines, but they could all be by themselves for as much as they relate to each other.

The cast isn’t doing the show any favors, but the core idea for Black’s involvement with them is clever. An illusionist sets up Black’s twin brother – a secret used to pull off some of Black’s flashiest tricks – for murder. She has a grudge against the brothers, though what that is, and how she knows twin Jonathan even exists, is a good enough hook to sustain the series, as is Black using his knowledge of trickery to help solve crimes. Here’s where our critique of the show is going to get a little nitpicky, because if you have even a passing knowledge of magic, Deception is going to drive you bananas.

First, Black awkwardly crams magic terminology into every situation possible. REVEAL! MISDIRECTION! DECK FLIP! CROWD WORK! STOOGES! PEPPER’S GHOST! It’s certainly true that magicians use lingo when talking about their craft, but Cutmore-Scott doesn’t deliver them with the smoothness of someone who’s absorbed magic into their bones. He says them like a guy playing a magician. In much the same way actors stumble over technobabble when they’re on Star Trek, Cutmore-Scott never once comes across as someone who genuinely understands what he’s talking about when he’s explaining magic to the laypeople around him.

Second, and far more aggravating, is our introduction to Black and his team. The setup is the performance of a grand escape as the finale of Black’s Las Vegas show: he’s in a straightjacket, hanging upside down over swords. Blowtorches are cutting through the three chains that keep him aloft; if he doesn’t get free in time, he’s a shishkabob. One of the blowtorches apparently malfunctions during the escape and begins cutting through the chain too quickly, which sends his engineer (a one-note Vinnie Jones) into a panic. He wants to pull the plug on the stunt to ensure Black’s safety, but decides to let it play out instead. No, no, no. When it comes to a trick or escape that could potentially hurt someone, every eventuality is tested and planned for, to ensure safety at all times. The idea that anybody would see a potential issue and just shrug it off is insulting. Now, had Black’s team ever been shown to be in on the “malfunction” – the prematurely cut chain is what leads to the big reveal that Black is not only alive, but across the country in New York – then fine. But they weren’t.

Then there’s the jargon Cameron uses with his magician brother. What the hell is an “auto Slydini” meant to be? Pepper’s Ghost is indeed an effect (and a cool-sounding one, at that) but not one to be seen in the plan Cameron says uses it. And don’t even get me started on Black saying “Ta da!” all the time. Even “abracadabra” would’ve been better.

Black performs several tricks over the course of the pilot that indeed are possible – with enough set up – yet he does them off the cuff with no warning or planning. His final grand illusion, which is used to catch the bad guy, is the kind of thing that only works from a single perspective and only if every single condition is planned for. Fine for the stage, but not likely to be successful out in the real world. Ok, ok, it’s a drama not a documentary, fine. It all looks enough like something a magician would be able to pull off to serve the premise of the show, but it’s not magic. With so many other options available for both crime and magic fans, there’s just no reason to put up with everything Deception gets wrong. No matter how much you want to like the imitation butter on your toast, you’re still going to be disappointed.