My girlfriend loves romantic comedies: the more predictable the better. She’s an intelligent person, but she gravitates to fairy-tale warmth, comforting predictability, and cliché happy endings like a moth to a flame. She knows that they’re not “good” movies, but she wrings an incredible degree of pleasure from films that score below 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. They make her happy, and that means she likes them.
Television can take a lesson here. Enjoyable TV doesn’t have to wow the critics. It has to be fun, unusual, engaging, or maybe even all three. And ABC’s punchy police procedural “Deception” delivers exactly that, without the emotional and temporal weight of adding another “Game of Thrones” to your already crowded TV schedule.
FBI: Magician, or an Obviously Dumb Premise
The premise of “Deception” is flatly ridiculous. The show runs a tweak on the outlandish criminal consultant genre, the best job that only exists on television. A magician teams up with the FBI to, unbelievably, solve crimes. I know, I laughed too. If it helps, everyone on the show is just as baffled by this turn of events as the audience should be.
It’s “The Mentalist” plus “Castle” plus “Elementary.” If it wasn’t for the charisma of the main character, Cameron Black (Jack Cutmore-Scott), the show would collapse into a stupidity singularity, crushed beneath its own premise. Cameron is the kind of guy that wears a hoodie with a suit jacket, an annoyingly confident but effective showman. He literally carries a deck of cards in his hand for no reason during several dialogue scenes. He’s all the more annoying because, despite his obvious fashion failings, he’s charming. I hate him, but in the same way you “hate” annoying dogs: they’re lovable in spite of it. And because the show spends a lot of time taking the wind out of Cameron’s sails, he remains charming.
Cameron Black begins the show as a wildly successful magician, with a Las Vegas show and worldwide celebrity. That all changes when Cameron’s identical twin brother (played by Cutmore-Scott, who pitches his voice downward for the maybe-evil twin role) is framed for murder. Turns out that Cameron has been using his twin to make his impressive magic tricks work, and once that’s revealed, he’s disgraced before the world of “America’s Got Talent” fans. Alack! Ripped from his life of fame and fortune, Cameron will ply his trade with FBI to crack cases that “only a master of deception could solve,” prove his brother’s innocence and hopefully rehabilitate his own career.
Thankfully, the show’s premise knows that it’s stupid. As one character shouts in the pilot, “You’re an illusionist: the FBI doesn’t need you!” In any other circumstance, they’d be correct. But through a Potemkin village of carefully contrived and transparently absurd circumstances, it turns out that Cameron is helpful! And, despite the odds, fairly amusing.
The FBI Doesn’t Need a Magician… Or Does It?
The FBI collabo starts when a different, evil magician—sorry, an “illusionist” in the show’s parlance—conspires with a generic South American cartel bad guy to free him from capture aboard a plane. The evil magician accomplishes this feat buy disappearing the plane in a frankly flamboyant fashion, involving red smoke bombs strapped to police officers, a false wall, and a complicated decoy. And, no surprise, Cameron is able to discover how the trick was performed and track the renegade illusionist to their hiding place. I’m sorry, an illusion: a trick is something a whore does for money, Michael.
The best part of the show is, of course, at the end of the episode. Here, they reveal how the trick was performed. A satisfying answer to a complicated question is the best part of any mystery tale, as any fan of Agatha Christie books will tell you. And the payoff is goofy but convincing enough to make the lead-up satisfying, no matter how zanny.
The show is fast-paced, with zippy dialogue and appealing character moments. It’s got the pace of “30 Rock,” if none of the jokes or the sparkling wit of Tina Fey. The female FBI agent that accompanies the main character (Ilfenesh Hadera) gives a good performance but is, unfortunately, written a little flat. Her partner, played by Amaury Nolasco, is more appealing, playing a magic fan who’s somewhat star-struck by his new coworker.
Together, they do the “straight man” role for the first half of the season, while we wait for a more interesting set of characters to appear and take our attention. Cameron’s “magic team” is a little more audaciously charming, helping solve crimes and bring down bad guys with a gallery of magical gimmicks that James Bond’s Q would envy.
Why Bad TV Can Actually Be Good
You might roll your eyes at this show. And why not! But must the show be bad? Fortunately, no.
“Deception” is a wonderful example of how good bad TV can be. Too many modern shows attempt to ape the success of big-budget dramas, attempting to create a complex package of deep characters, ambiguous morality, ambitious plots, and excellent acting. And while they might get the wrapping paper right, the package’s contents are often dead on arrival.
Part of the problem is viewer fatigue. There are only so many “heavy” shows that your life can accommodate. It’s hard to fit in several emotionally wrenching one-hour dramas into your heart and your calendar, so viewers pick and choose their allegiances among competing television schedules.
A popcorn show like “Deception” airs in a non-competitive time slot and comes with the emotional weight of “The Big Bang Theory.” There’s very little about the show that’s weighty or even concerning. The characters are basically immortal, there is precious little in the way of moral quandaries, and it’s easy to have fun watching a series of totally absurd situations unfold, led by a charismatic main character and an enjoyable cast of supporting actors.
“Deception” also airs into a noticeable void of fun police procedurals. As outright bad as “Castle” got during the last few seasons, it was holding down the fun crime fort for a while. “The Mentalist” also made a strong showing, as did the lost-too-soon “Limitless” and the gone-but-ne’er-forgotten “Psych,” a show so beloved it got a movie years after the last episode aired.
Is “Deception” dumb? Oh yes. But that makes it even more wonderful.
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