Ask someone if they want to see a magic trick in 2018 and they may well look at you funny and ask if you know what year it is. But magic has found itself an unexpectedly perfect home in the modern streaming era; an artform that centres around short build-ups and sudden pay-offs, it’s precisely the kind of vignette-based entertainment that is easily bingeable in the YouTube age. It’s no surprise, then, that magician Justin Willman is one of several magicians to make their mark online, playing their tricks closer to sketches than old-school stage shows.
It’s even less of a surprise that Netflix should order Willman to conjure up its own magic series: the streaming giant is increasingly investing in short-form content, from quick stand-up comedy sets and short documentaries (including the Oscar-winning The White Helmets) to bite-sized non-fiction series such as Follow This with Buzzfeed. It’s part of a concerted move to compete with YouTube for eyeballs online, as attention spans shrink and time spent on any one page by a user can be increasingly brief. Those tuning into Magic for Humans, though, are unlikely to wander elsewhere: this mini-box set is enchantingly silly stuff.
Willman is perfectly primed to deliver what Netflix is after: an act that can magic relevant, fun and consumable whether on the phone on the bus or even in the living room as a family. His knack for comic timing, honed over many viral videos, is nicely matched by his eye for spectacle and a deceptive amount of patience in taking us from one to the other. The word “us” is crucial, as his magic goes beyond the street magic stunt of Paul Zenon and David Blaine to the more participatory of Derren Brown; his tricks are at their best when they involve others, and invite us to join in the complicitry or the shock.
That means we get to giggle along with a group of kids, as Willman does the old patience test using a marshmallow – then starts making them disappear from underneath cups and multiplying them out of his mouth and eyeballs. The sight is surreal, disturbing and fun. The children’s reaction, though, is priceless. Equally enjoyable are gimmicks such as pulling a microchip out of volunteers’ arms and a Mary Poppins-style backpack that conceals someone’s wife. Throughout, they’re intercut with running gags, from Tricks for Susan (in which he does tricks for anyone he can find in the street called Susan) to Trick Questions (in which he does a trick then asks someone a completely unrelated general knowledge question).
There’s a constant toying with expectations, undermining and subverting them, as well as misdirecting them; Willman performs both to his sidekicks and the camera with self-deprecating wit that hides an oft-ingenious creativity, but also reinforces the sheer likeability of it all. Ostensibly wrapping each episode up with themes (guilt, love, etc.) might seem a tad sentimental, but it helps craft an overall message about learning to be a better human that, frankly, is precisely the kind of positivity the world needs right now.
The result combines dazzling impossibilities with recognisable insecurities, making Magic for Humans precisely that: a box set that can be comfortably devoured by people of all ages.
Magic for Humans is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.