Wednesday, October 24, 2007

NBC’s ‘Phenomenon’ shouldn’t make magic disappear

By Mike Bent • Boston Herald

Uri Geller? That name takes me back. Back to the 1970s, when I was a preteen magic geek, destined to become a professional magic geek.

Magic had nearly died by the early ’70s, until two personalities appeared and changed magic forever - Geller and Doug Henning.

You remember Henning - the man who broke all the stereotypes of magician as top-hat-and-tuxedo-wearing rabbit plucker. With his TV specials and long-running Broadway show, he made magic hip, fun and groovy.

Geller, who co-stars in NBC’s “Phenomenon,” (debuting Wednesday at 8 on WHDH, Ch. 7), made magic hip, mysterious and controversial. As he made his way around the talk-show circuit, bending spoons and making broken watches run with his mind, he was dogged by a persistent question: Is he a telepath or a magician? A genuine psychic or a con man?

In “Phenomenon” Geller teams up with Criss Angel of “Mindfreak” fame in a live search for what NBC is calling “the next great mentalist.”

Each week, 10 contestants will demonstrate their talents for a panel of celebrity guests - plus judges Geller and Angel - before viewers vote, “American Idol”-style, for a winner.

The network has avoided using the dreaded “m” - “magician.” The contestants are called paranormalists, illusionists and mentalists.

Maybe that’s because Geller’s battles with skeptics - including professional magician James Randi and amateur magician Johnny Carson - are legendary.

When he appeared on “The Tonight Show” in 1973, for instance, Carson and Randi provided all his props - spoons, watches and the like - and kept them away from Geller and his associates before the show. Under those conditions . . . well, let’s just say that Uri had a bad night.

I wonder how Carson would feel about the Peacock giving him a prime-time forum?

Full disclosure: NBC called me last summer and asked me to send in a demo tape for the show. I did, knowing full well that I would never in a million years be chosen. My brand of magic (yes, I’m proud to be called a “magician”) is fun, light and played for laughs. I’ve read my share of minds over the years, but it’s always clear it’s just trickery, mixed with a well-intentioned charlatan’s knowledge of human behavior.

With Geller’s involvement, “Phenomenon” seems to want people to think there’s more than that going on. It looks like a continuation of the brooding, “poser magic” style of Angel and David Blaine. I hope it doesn’t take itself too seriously with an “is it real or not?” attitude. I hope it doesn’t take the fun out of magic.

Instead of looking for the next Uri Geller, I wish NBC was looking for the next Doug Henning. Now that would be groovy.

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