ABC’s magic-themed crime drama, Deception, has been cancelled. The show, which our own Susan Arendt quite generously described as “the imitation butter of crime shows,” got off to a bad start and quickly got worse, but was clawing its way back towards something resembling entertainment when ABC announced it wouldn’t be getting a second season. As it stands, the final episode “Transposition” will air on May 27th.
Deception is one of several television shows brought low by executive decisions this week, but while fan favorites like Brooklyn Nine-Nine have already been picked up by other channels (and please, God, let someone pick up The Expanse), it seems unlikely that Deception will be coming back from the grave.
While everyone here at GeniiOnline is positively aching to tell you exactly what went wrong with Deception, we’re going to wait until that last episode has aired to do a full post-mortem.
Oh, and The Big Bang Theory got renewed. You know, just in case you thought there was an ounce of justice in this wretched world.
Did you know that 30% of all phishing emails are opened, and 12% of the malicious links in those emails are successful in finding a target? Or that the average phishing attack on a medium-sized business can cause $1.6 million in damages? I didn’t until I watched the above video from The Modern Rogue, a blog and YouTube channel by magician Brian Brushwood and writer Jason Murphy, and it’s a handy reminder to be wary any email that asks for your personal information.
If you don’t know what phishing is, no, it has nothing to do with the Vermont-based jam band. It’s the act of sending out emails to unsuspecting marks like one would cast a line out into a pond to catch a fish. The lure in this case is an email which looks legitimate and is crafted to instill a sense of urgency – a warning that your password has been reset, or that your bank account might be compromised. The hope is that the email looks real enough and you are so caught off guard that you click the link inside, inevitably handing over whatever personal information the phisher desires.
It’s different from 419 scams (aka, The Nigerian Prince scam, which The Modern Rogue also covered) because phishers are often trying abuse your trust by using social engineering tricks and posing as people or businesses that you trust.
The video is a crash course in how phishers try to bait you, offering advice on how best to avoid getting phished yourself as well as a brief glimpse at some of the tools that are often used to keep scammers from getting caught. If you spend any amount of time on the internet, you owe it to yourself to give it a watch, especially if you think something like this could never happen to you. Like Brian says in the video, it’s as true in magic as it is online: the people who think they can never get fooled are the ones who end up becoming the easiest targets.
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.
Deception, a new show on ABC where FBI agents get a pinch-hit in their crime-solving from a roguish magician, premieres on Sunday, March 11 at 10 pm. The show’s stars and its magic consultant, Francis Menotti, have been drumming up interest with lots of press interviews. Menotti said he has been particularly impressed with how quickly his newest protege, actor Jack Cutmore-Scott, picked up the tricks.
“Jack may be the best I’ve ever worked with,” he told Decider. “What I thought I had to do was teach him basic sleight of hand, muscle movements, control, and observation; being able to aware of your surroundings and be aware of angles. What I didn’t realize I’d be teaching him, and what he’s learned on his own is how to work an audience.” Menotti added that he could send the actor a video clip of a magic trick and Cutmore-Scott would have it nailed in six hours. They also did plenty of in-person research to prep him for the role as superstar magician Cameron Black.
“We went to see real magic shows and we’d talk about them after,” Menotti recalled. “We had discussions not just about how the tricks work but specifically how the psychology of the magic worked.”
When Decider asked Cutmore-Scott about the magician training, he said that keeping a poker face during the tricks has been his biggest challenge:
The hardest part is to actually not get overexcited when it works, staying calm as if it’s normal, because for Cameron it is normal; it’s just not for me. I’m only more impressed now that I’ve snuck a peek behind the curtain because you find out how much work goes into these tricks that are designed to look totally natural and magic. They’re supposed to look effortless and they are not.
Read the full interview here.
Game designers are magicians in their own way. The tools may be different, but the goals are the same: to provide a sense of wonder and excitement that transcends mundane reality. And like magicians, the ways game designers achieve this effect often involves lying right to your face.
Video games are filled with numbers, stats, meters, and gauges, and players interact with them by moving characters through digital worlds, clicking on boxes, defeating enemies, managing resources and so on. Through these mechanics, games build an implicit dialog of trust with the player over time: “These numbers I’m showing you are true,” the game says, “and you can rely on them to make your way through my challenges.” The secret, however, is that many times what the game tells you is a complete fabrication.
Many examples of the deception players experience right under their noses were exposed when Jennifer Scheurle, lead designer of virtual reality game Earthlight at Opaque Space, tweeted out an open-ended question asking developers to reveal the hidden mechanics behind some of the best moments in games. She received a flood of responses, each one revealing how designers lie to or omit information from the player in order to manipulate their emotions.
Like how Doom messes with your perception of health to make you feel like you survived harrowing encounters by the skin of your teeth:
Assassin's Creed and Doom value the last bit of health as more hit points than the rest of it to encourage a feeling of *JUST* surviving.
— Jennifer Scheurle (@Gaohmee) September 1, 2017
Or how Half-life 2 makes sure something cool happens as often as possible whenever bullets miss you:
After Half-Life 2 determines a shot will miss the player, it looks for something interesting it could hit instead, like an explosive barrel.
— Tom Francis (@Pentadact) September 1, 2017
Or how initial surprise attacks in Bioshock aren’t deadly at all:
First shots from an enemy against you in BioShock always missed…that was the design, think it got fully implemented. No "out of blue!"
— Ken Levine (@levine) September 2, 2017
These are just a few choice examples of the many found in that treasure trove of a Twitter thread, but there’s one constant found in all of them, regardless of game or genre: none of the tricks developers use are meant to punish the player or make them feel like a loser. In fact, many are there to provide the illusion that the player is on the precipice of failure while actually giving them a leg-up on the competition.
One of the most important tools a game designer has is the ability to play with perception. Through visual tricks, audio cues, interface tweaks, along with the code running under the hood, designers can create the illusion that a player is in complete control—or make them feel like they have no control at all. Game designers can even mess with numbers in a way that makes players feel luckier than they actually are.
For instance, a game called Peggle requires players to drop balls down a series of complex grids in an attempt to hit and remove each stage’s orange-colored pegs. As the balls fall, they bounce and react according to angles and physics. Except… they don’t—at least, not all the time. According to statement made by Peggle designer Jason Kapalka in an article on Nautilus, “the seemingly random bouncing of the balls off of pegs is sometimes manipulated to give the player better results,” especially in the early stages. Adhering to proper physics may be realistic, but it can be discouraging to people who are just starting to learn the ropes. Tweaking the player’s ‘luck’ ensures that they’ll keep going.
Similar decisions were made in the strategy game Civilization to keep players from getting frustrated. Using actual probability sounds like the right thing to do, but it upsets players when real-world math doesn’t line up with how their brains perceive that math should play out. For example, if Civilization players were told they’d win a particular battle 33% of the time, they’d get frustrated if they tried it three times and never won. So designer Sid Meier opted to go with perception of how the statistics would play out over the reality; according to the article, “if your odds of winning a battle were one in three, the game guaranteed that you’d win on the third attempt.”
Game designers exploit luck not to defeat players, but rather to make them feel good about playing their games. In a sense, these not-so-random numbers actually appear more fair than true randomness, and seasoned developers know when and how to fudge the numbers for a more fun experience.
Because that’s what the end result of all of this deception really is: fun. People come to games to be challenged, yes, but to also experience emotional highs and lows, along with the narrative provided by the story and moment-to-moment gameplay. And like a magician faking out a hapless volunteer with a rubber knife, game designers lie and cheat to surprise, delight, and above all, keep us glued to the edge of our seats.
Fooling people isn’t just the purview of magicians. As long as there are people willing to part with large sums of money, there will be thieves, con artists, and forgers willing to take advantage of them. Art forgeries in particular are a great way to make a ton of cash—as long as you don’t get caught. Frustrated painters and expert copycats pop up every now and then to rock the art world to its core, often making millions of dollars on illicit reproductions of great historical works before being found out. These are some of the most successful counterfeiters in art history.
Yep, that Michelangelo—the guy who sculpted the statue of David and painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was very likely also a con-man. It was common for artists during the Renaissance to copy the work of classic painters in order to practice their brush strokes, but some art historians believe that when Michelangelo was first starting out, he passed them off as classics and sold them to rich people for a huge profit.
Antiquities often sold for up to ten times more than modern works during his time, and Michelangelo simply didn’t make enough original art to account for his sizeable fortune at such a young age. Many historians believe that he would borrow old drawings, copy them, then use smoke to age them and sell them—even to the point that some believe there are “ancient” paintings hiding out in Greek or Roman museums that should actually be attributed to Michelangelo instead.
There’s even a story of Michelangelo trying to pull a fast one on an Italian cardinal by forging a sculpture of a cherub and burying it in a garden to make it look older than it was. Michelangelo was found out, but the cardinal was so impressed that he not only allowed Michelangelo to keep his cut for creating the fake, but even invited the budding artist to come to Rome to work on his art—a move that would end up jump-starting his career and making him into the artists whose work has become synonymous with the Renaissance.
There aren’t a lot of concrete facts that we know about Elmyr de Hory’s life, mostly because de Hory relied on deception to ply his trade. He only gave detailed accounts of his life in a biography called Fake, written by Clifford Irving—a writer who would go on to fabricate a biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes a few years later. Many of the details de Hory gives in Fake are either fudged or lacking sufficient evidence to back them up.
What we do know about de Hory is that he was an artist who had an incredible ability to copy other people’s paintings, often making more money on his forged Picassos than his own original works. He traveled around the globe, creating hundreds of forgeries and selling his work to dealers and wealthy people looking to increase their clout with some well-priced art. One mark was a Texas oil baron named Algur H. Meadows, who became incensed when he learned that 56 paintings—nearly his whole collection that he spent $2 million to acquire—were all phony.
De Hory grew tired of forging paintings and tried his hand at making his own again, but was never able to replicate the same kind of success he could with his fakes. In 1976, he learned that Spain was planning to extradite him to France on forgery charges and took his own life. His legacy lives on, however, in the fantastic documentary F for Fake, directed by cinematic master and known charlatan Orson Welles.
Henricus Antonius van Meegeren was born in 1889 to a middle-class family in Deventer, Netherlands. In his 20s, he tried to make an honest go of painting, attending an art academy and putting his work up for sale, a few of which became quite popular at the time. Critically, however, his paintings were seen as having “every virtue except originality”. In response to these reviews, he wrote a series of scathing takedowns in art journals (the 1920s equivalent of angrily replying to online comments), and then set out to prove them all wrong by creating the ultimate forgery.
He practiced by copying the works of several great Dutch painters, eventually landing on Johannes Vermeer as the subject of his greatest counterfeits. He painted The Supper at Emmaus in 1936, got it verified as an official Vermeer work, and sold it to the Rembrandt Society for the modern equivalent of nearly $5.5 million.
His biggest con, though, was fooling Nazi general Hermann Göring with a forgery of Christ with the Adulteress for the modern equivalent of $7 million. After World War 2, van Meegeren was discovered to be the source of the painting’s sale, and would have been tried for treason (as selling Dutch cultural history to the Nazis would have been considered collaboration and a war crime), but he copped to forging the painting and was sentenced to one year in prison instead. He never served out his term, though—as the trial was wrapping up, he suffered a series of heart attacks and died in 1947. All told, van Meegeren’s forgeries had earned him over $60 million in today’s currency. Not too shabby for an “unoriginal” painter.
Wolfgang Beltracchi, along with his wife Helene, are two of the most successful forgers of the 21st century, making millions off of illicitly sold paintings. Beltracchi (born Wolfgang Fischer, eventually taking his wife’s last name when they married in 1993) began forging paintings when he was 14, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that his forgeries began to make him some serious money. After marrying his wife, the two would operate as a team—Wolfgang creating the forgeries, and Helene selling them to art dealers and collectors.
Wolfgang’s claim to fame was essentially creating new paintings that would fit inside a classic artist’s oeuvre, mimicking style and even signature down to minute details. His work was so good that he even fooled painter Max Ernst’s widow with one of his forgeries. What eventually busted him was the paint; he’d used titanium white in a forgery of Heinrich Campendonk, a style of paint that wasn’t available in 1914, the year the painting was supposed to have been created. In 2011, Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison for forging 14 works that sold for $45 million, though he claims to have faked “about 50” different artists. His wife was similarly sentenced for being an accomplice and the two were ordered to pay back millions as compensation for their theft.
Lucky for the two of them, people have been just as interested in his own personal works as they had been for his forgeries. A gallery full of Beltracchi originals opened shortly after his release from prison and the pieces in it sold for millions.
Knoedler & Co. was one of the oldest art galleries in the United States, founded in 1846 in New York City, and host to some of the greatest classic and contemporary works in the world. Unfortunately, all of that fell apart after a scandal in the early 2000s obliterated its reputation and forced its closure.
In 1994, Ann Freedman became the gallery’s director, and met with a woman named Glafira Rosales—a woman who had no prior connections to the art world. Rosales was somehow able to obtain priceless abstract paintings from Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and many more. Her story was that they were obtained from a secretive and reclusive collector with homes in Switzerland and Mexico, but in actuality, the whole operation was a counterfeit ring run by, Rosales, her boyfriend Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, his brother Jesus, and a chinese forger named Pei-Shen Quian, who created the forgeries in his garage in Queens. Quian was paid a few thousand dollars for each fake; Rosales then sold them to the Knoedler Gallery for millions.
From 1994 up until 2008, the Knoedler Gallery sold or consigned 40 forged paintings, totalling over $80 million. Once details of the gallery’s numerous fakes came to light, the fallout grew exponentially. Knoedler was subpoenaed in 2009; Freedman stepped down shortly after. Freedman maintained that the works were real up until 2013, when Rosales admitted to the ring and pled guilty to a litany of charges. The Diaz brothers were arrested in Spain after fleeing the US; Quian fled to China and has so far avoided extradition. The Knoedler Gallery shut down in 2011, supposedly for financial reasons unrelated to the forgeries, but in 2016, details came to light that the gallery would not have turned a profit for the last 17 years of its existence if not for the forgeries.
Since the closure, numerous collectors have successfully sued the gallery or settled out of court over the sale of these counterfeit paintings. Considering we’re still hearing new information nearly a decade after allegations began, there’s a good chance we’ll continue to find out just how deep this conspiracy ran in the years to come.
We all know that when we agree to see a magician perform, we’re effectively giving our consent to be lied to. But what is the psychology behind our love of being fooled? Why do we lie to one another, even when we know it’s wrong? And how do we find the truth when misinformation is easier than ever to spread?
These questions and many more will be asked and (hopefully) answered at an upcoming day-long conference at Emory University this Friday. Entitled “The Lying Conference”, the university has assembled a wide variety of experts from an array of professions, including psychology, journalism, theater, and magic. Each one will give presentations on the science, history, and art of lying, and how it applies to our lives in the 21st century.
“Lying is kind of a hot topic right now, with all the buzz about fake news and accusations of cover-ups and deception,” Emory development psychologist and lead organizer Philippe Rochat states on the University’s event page. “When we talk about lying, what we are indirectly trying to understand is, what is the truth? It can be a profound question.”
Talks will begin at 8:30 am and last until 6:30 pm, and include topics such as “Little liars: How children learn to tell lies?” presented by developmental psychologist Kang Lee, “What Happened to The News? – Technology, Politics and the Vanishing Truth” presented by CNN international anchor Jonathan Mann, and “The Science of Magic and the Art of Deception” presented by magician and author Alex Stone.
The event is free and open to the public, though registration for the event is requested, and can be done on the conference’s Eventbrite page. For more information, please contact Natalie Eldred at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 404-727-6199.