Blightyvision: “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” Series 1

Featuring Penn Jillette and Teller
Hosted by Jonathan Ross

Back when I reviewed the 90-minute special this trio did, I recall saying I wish it could be a full series, but understood that it was harder to find skilled magicians than singers and thus did not hold out hope.  But then Penn announced on Twitter that they were flying back over to London to do a seven-episode series, and I will admit to being surprised.  I can understand other TV talent shows being able to rustle up talent, because for most of them you’ll get auditions from just about anyone whose mom thinks they’ve got a pretty voice.

It’s actually the things that made a full series seem unlikely that make the show as good as it is — like the fact that impressing your family with some card tricks isn’t going to be enough to get you looked at.  The competitors range from teenagers to world champions, all looked at on an even keel, and all treated just as fairly as the others.  You do a trick once.  If two master magicians can’t figure out how it was done, you get to open for them in Vegas.  No judging panel, no audience votes.

Now, I already talked plenty about the format of the original special and why it was cool.  And you’d think that the extension of that same format into a full-length (by UK standards) series would have an effect.  But … it doesn’t.  They didn’t tinker with it in the least.   Hell, they didn’t even change the set. Because the format works, and it works better than the usual format of just about any other show in the genre.

Think about other talent series.  We see the selection process.  We see a narrowing-down.  We watch the same people (who become “characters” of a sort) from week to week and get attached to them and, over time, a bit defensive of our favorites.  Not so here.  We don’t see the auditions or the elimination process, and we don’t follow the competitors from week to week trying to up their game and impress the judges.  Well, okay, we do in two isolated cases, but more on that elsewhere.

Really, the only “characters” the show develops are the three hosts.  Jonathan Ross aligned himself very quickly with the competitors, setting Penn and Teller up (teasingly) as the “bad guys,” taunting them if they seem stumped by a trick, and otherwise being a sort of snidely humorous one-man cheer squad.  The thing is — and you see this even more here than in the special — they want to be fooled.  They say at several points they hope their guess is wrong, and their reactions when they are range anywhere from straight-up happy to a sort of mix of respect and frustration.

(As an aside, a friend who watches asked me recently if I ever thought maybe they let some acts through “because it makes for good TV.”  No, I never thought of that.  Why?  Because the pair’s arguably best-known show, “Bullshit!”, spent dozens of episodes calling people out for being liars, swindlers, and just flat-out idiots.  Something tells me they wouldn’t put their name on a show where they lie for ratings.)

Remember what I’d said before about repeat acts?  Well, two gentlemen come back from the special.  Both are top form, but only one fools them.  As for the other?  They ask him back, just because they like to watch his card tricks and sleight of hand.  Though I get the feeling they’re hoping that they’ll end up taking him to Vegas.

As I said, Penn and Teller don’t lie … except for the purposes of their acts, obviously.  And while they never flat-out down an act (though Penn did call a guy out at full volume on his rubbish fake accent), there are specific occasions where they offer proper high praise.  They tell people what they did right, what they should keep at, and how far they could go given time.  Nothing to sneeze at.

There are very few non-dramatic series that make me legitimately grumpy when they end.  Once I watched the last episode of “Fool Us,” I pouted for the rest of the day because it was over (which was very difficult to explain to people).  It really does just make you straight-up happy to watch, not only because you’re seeing nearly an hour of actual good magic each week, but just the overall mood of the show.  Well, and Piff the Magic Dragon.  But you’ve gotta see him for yourself.

“Penn & Teller: Fool Us” is rumored to return for at least one follow-up episode.  At this point there’s no solid word on a second series, and no plans announced to distribute the show internationally.  At last, it seems the UK has exacted its payment for us stealing Hugh Laurie.