Phenomenal Piece of Sh*t

Last night I watched NBC's mentalist reality show, "Phenomenon." I think I've finally recovered. I had an interest in the show because I had been invited to audition in August. I didn't make the cut and, frankly, now that I've seen the end result, I'm incredibly grateful.

I take mentalism very seriously. I don't perform much anymore—maybe five times a year—but when I do, I try to not just entertain my audience, but to give them a sense that they're seeing something beyond an ordinary magic show. But my shows are as much about the audience as myself. I don't present myself as a dark, mysterious guy with supernatural abilities. I demonstrate some amazing things, but I make sure to allow the audience members to take part, and to allow them to do amazing things as well. That's what I believe mentalism is all about. It is a performing art, like magic, but it works best when it's participatory.

"Phenomenon" was a train-wreck from the beginning. The whiny, screeching, over-the-top gay stereotype Ross Matthews was the first indication that NBC was going for the lowest-common-denominator. Uri Geller looked befuddled and out-of-sorts, and Criss Angel . . . well, let me just say that Angel typifies the worst trends in magic and mentalism. The guy is not a magician or a mentalist—he's an alleged performer who couldn't pull a quarter from behind a child's ear without the aid of a camera team and crafty editors. His flamboyant, goth-lite persona might work with the kids at Hot Topic, but he's nothing more than a David Blaine wannabe in ripped jeans and chintzy medallions and a bad 80s haircut.


(And I suspect he'll be staying away from professional mentalists for some time, unless he wants a pitchfork up his ass, because he broke the number-one rule of the craft and revealed the name and inventor of an effect that is in the repertoire of many working professionals. Those in the know will understand what I'm talking about. He did it simply to show off, too, which makes it more reprehensible.)

The performances, in general, were execrable.* There was nothing new or exciting here—just the same old, trite "watch me demonstrate my uncanny powers!" shtick. I'm sorry, my fellow mentalists, but if you step on stage claiming you're a haunted, supernatural prodigy, you're going to immediately alienate 75% of your audience. They know it's crap. They're not stupid (well, at least many of them aren't). And they will want you to fail. They will want you to shoot yourself in the head with a nail gun because they know you're not really endangering yourself. It's a fucking trick. You're fooling yourself—not them.

Phenomenal Disaster

(Above: graphic depiction of my mental state while watching NBC's wretched product)

Mentalism, as theatre, succeeds when the audience is convinced that what they're seeing and experiencing can't be a trick. When the spoon bends in their hands. When private thoughts are pulled out of their heads. No flashy gimmicks, no death-defying stunts, just pure demonstrations of what seems to be unexplainable.

I close all of my shows with a demonstration of mind over matter accomplished only by audience members. They do all the work. And it's something they can go home and repeat, with their friends. That is magic. That is phenomenal.

My hope is that this show will tank. Hard. But I've learned that one can't underestimate the phenomenally poor taste of the viewing public.

* The exceptions were Ehud Segev and Gerry McCambridge, both competent professionals.

media, mentalismMichael Hughes