Magic is a hard thing to show on screen. Its spellbinding effect relies on the magician’s ability to misdirect their audience, through patter, sleight of hand, props or sheer charisma – all things that often work better in person than on tape. Over the years, people have tried a variety of ways to overcome that obstacle, to mixed degrees of success: use the camera’s position to hide a secret and it feels like cheating; carry out a huge stunt and it can feel detached; head out on the streets for one-on-one gags and it can seem overly familiar; go too far with CGI effects to achieve the impossible and it can feel fake.
Enter Penn & Teller: Fool Us. The unassuming show first aired several years ago on ITV, before eventually being cancelled. The CW, though, wanted more, ordering the programme to hop over to the US for another run. After airing on Channel 5 in the UK, it’s landed on Netflix. And it’s as hugely entertaining as ever.
The premise is simple: if a magician can present a trick without the titular duo guessing how they did it, they win a chance to perform with the duo in Las Vegas. And so we see a parade of versatile acts, all stitched together by Jonathan Ross. The cheap-and-cheerful set-up is a smart combination of game show, talent contest and that old 1990s series, Breaking the Magician’s Code (also on Netflix UK). But rather than explain how things are done, it leaves everything as vague as possible – as the end credits roll of each episode, the mechanics remain as mysterious as they did at the start.
That generous attitude is key to the series’ charm; every guest is allowed to strut their stuff, without Penn & Teller (a show-stopping duo in their own right) stealing their thunder and without anyone spoiling their act. And the acts are frequently impressive, from Amazing Allison, a mind reader with a keen brain for maths, to an old friend of Penn & Teller, Mac King, who brings big laughs with a guinea pig. Every now and then, something spectacular comes along that blows your puny, muggle mind. In the first episode, that’s Simon Pierro, a digital magician who uses an iPad as a surrogate wand. Making things go in and out of his tablet’s screen, he’s a genuinely refreshing spectacle – in an age of tired old formats such as The X-Factor, that really is magic.
While the live audience reaction is nicely captured by the show’s editing, though, it’s Penn & Teller’s reaction that is most rewarding. The chance to see magic boffins communicate through code and name-drops is a televisual treat, and regardless of whether they see through an illusion or not, Penn & Teller visibly enjoy watching other magicians at work. “I love this act!” exclaims Penn in the middle of Jon Armstrong’s astonishing (and adorable) “tiny plunger” trick. Another young guy with smooth-flowing fingers, meanwhile, is encouraged with sincere enthusiasm.
“You didn’t fool us, but you did amaze us,” is the kind of thing you hear on a regular basis – and with every episode capped off with a bonus performance by the pair (from the elegant simplicity of Teller with a ball and string or a fish tank full of coins to the bombastic humour of Penn dodging knives and catching bullets), the second part of that sentiment certainly holds true. Tired of the same old TV shows on a Saturday teatime? Penn & Tenner: Fool Us is enchanting fun to dazzle the whole family.
Season 1 and 2 of Penn & Teller: Fool Us is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.