Sometimes reviews need to be complicated, factoring in writing and performance and direction and varied viewer preferences for a recommendation that can still be uncertain.
Sometimes reviews can be really simple, like this: If you enjoyed the quippy, procedural lightness of ABC’s long-running drama Castle, but Nathan Fillion’s seasoned, snarky charisma wasn’t a factor in your pleasure and, in fact, you thought, “I’d love this show a lot more if the leading man were blander and the leads had no ongoing sexual chemistry,” you just may be the target audience for ABC’s new drama Deception. And if you happen to love magic, even when it doesn’t always seem conveniently shoehorned into a weekly investigation? Boy, allow me to introduce your new favorite show.
That’s the review. Everything else is just gravy.
Jack Cutmore-Scott plays Cameron Black, a popular Las Vegas illusionist who becomes unemployable after a scandal that takes place in the first five minutes of the pilot, but a scandal I won’t spoil until later in the review. That leaves Cameron and his team of diverse assistants — Justin Chon’s Jordan, Lenora Crichlow’s Dina and Vinnie Jones’ Gunter — unemployed. That changes when Cameron is watching TV coverage of an aviation explosion thwarting an FBI investigation and he announces, “Whoever did this was an illusionist!” Before you can say “Abracadabra,” Cameron has made his way into the crime scene and he announces, “Your plane did not explode. It disappeared.” The FBI agents on the scene are Amaury Nolasco’s Agent Alvarez, who just so happens to be a huge fan of Cameron’s work, and Ilfenesh Hadera’s Agent Daniels, who claims she hates magic, but may just be protesting too much.
Just as Castle was able to quickly dispense with the myriad liabilities that accompany bringing any completely untrained civilian contractor into a law enforcement situation, it doesn’t take long for Team Deception to be regularly on-call for Daniels and Alvarez, and if you’d think that there might be a finite number of investigations on which one might find magic useful, you’d be hilariously incorrect. Creator Chris Fedak, mining somewhat similar nerdy-yet-fun tonal terrain to his work on Chuck, has a good time explaining how perspective and misdirection and other principles associated with magic tricks and magic staging are part of many well-planned crimes as well. Fedak and the show’s writers blur the line between magicians and con artists, so there are lots of amusingly named gambits for Team Deception to propose and then explain to the normals, which is probably good for five minutes of filler per episode.
There’s an ongoing serialized story involving Cameron’s career-jeopardizing scandal and guest star Stephanie Corneliussen, who appears in maybe 90 seconds total in the first three episodes sent to critics, but the procedural rhythms of Deception set in almost immediately. Just as Richard Castle would show up at crime scenes unprompted, spew some conventions of the mystery novel he was writing, smile when people recognized him and occasionally put everybody’s life in jeopardy by stumbling his way to a solution, Cameron Black can’t resist making a big arrival, throw out a few magical conventions that may be at play, smile when people recognize him and always seem on the brink of getting himself killed. As was the case with Stana Katic’s Becket, Agent Daniels’ resistance to Cameron’s charms is short-lived. I don’t think Deception is pointing to an inevitable romance quite as aggressively as Castle was from the outset, but that may be a factor of Cutmore-Scott and Hadera having no real spark.
The three procedural cases in the episodes I’ve seen are all decent and sometimes even clever, it’s just that a formula sets in so quickly that a lot of dramatic tension is sapped. If every episode is going to have Cameron and his team doing a misdirected illusion to fool the bad guys and the audience is in on that inevitability, we never get to experience the pleasure of magic, which is the whole “being fooled by it” thing.
So much of the show hinges on viewers finding Cameron as fascinating as the people in the Deception universe find him, but there’s a reason why most of the more famous magicians who break through beyond mid-size Las Vegas venues aren’t just preppy, Abercrombie models. Even David Copperfield, probably on the more conventionally handsome side by magician standards, has an intensity that verges on hypnotic. In a job in which you’ve got to have a gimmick, Cameron Black’s gimmick appears to just be “smug frat boy” and forgive my skepticism that he could truly achieve this level of, pun intended, prestige. Cutmore-Scott has a Young Cary Elwes vibe, reduced somewhat by the pointless decision to have him playing American. As was also the case on his Fox comedy Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life, the actor is playing a character here who needs to be unimaginably fascinating to get away with how otherwise annoying he’d be. And he’s not. He does, however, do some convincing close magic that the show’s directors, starting with David Nutter, take pride in showing without visible edits, ignoring that due to TV magic, we probably wouldn’t know if there was trickery involved anyway.
(Getting briefly into the spoiler from the first five minutes of the pilot: Cameron has a twin brother, who was part of his act and also part of his career-halting scandal and now finds himself unjustly imprisoned. Cutmore-Scott is not interesting enough an actor to play variations on himself, and every time Cameron and brother Jonathan share the screen together, I could only reflect on how odd it is that even in jail, Jonathan uses the same electric razor “stubble” setting as his brother. This is not an illusion that is well executed.)
Hadera, Nolasco and Laila Robins, as the obligatory stern boss whose skepticism about Cameron lasts a little bit longer, are all fine as characters who don’t stray far from archetype. The scenes with Chon, Crichlow and Jones are so much more appealing and full of personality than the rest of the show that I’m already awaiting the obligatory episode in which Cameron is kidnapped or something and his team has to join with the FBI in the field to rescue him.
The “Magician helps the FBI fight crime” hook of Deception sounds silly, but the early episodes prove that “silly” isn’t the same as “bad.” Viewers happily watched 170-plus episodes of Castle, which was also a very silly show at times. I can already see how this show works on a basic and repeatable level, I just don’t see how it gets any better than that without a shocking discovery of hidden talents that its leading man hasn’t displayed thus far. Think of Deception as Magic Castle and at least you know exactly what you’re getting into with this one.
Cast: Jack Cutmore-Scott, Ilfenesh Hadera, Aumaury Nolasco, Lenora Crichlow, Justin Chon, Laila Robins, Vinnie Jones
Creator: Chris Fedak
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)