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Mind Control with Derren Brown

First Episode
Cast: Derren Brown
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET

(Sci-Fi Channel; US: 26 Jul 2007)

Tricks and Treats

Derren Brown became a sensation in the UK with his mental trickery, starring in several specials and his own series. Now he brings his act to the United States, duping some unsuspecting Americans into obeying his wishes and astounding others with his “telepathic” powers. Even when we can easily spot the manipulation or, in some cases, hear it explained, Mind Control with Derren Brown is a fun and fascinating hour of television.


Brown is quick to point out that his goal is to “influence and manipulate people’s minds,” and he insists that he uses no actors or stooges in his act. Unlike street magician David Blaine, Brown’s goal isn’t to fool people with illusion, but to make them part of the illusion. Brown’s tricks don’t work if individuals don’t willingly succumb to his powers of suggestion.


They don’t always work. One of his most impressive ploys involves purchasing items with blank pieces of paper. He starts by buying about $20 worth of fish, and works his way up to a $4500 diamond ring (the items were all paid for with legitimate money after the performance). Some store clerks even give Brown change. The trick’s failure was almost as entertaining as its success: under the closing credits of the pilot episode, Brown appeared with a hot dog vendor, who looked at the white slips of paper and asked, “What is this?” before calling Brown an “asshole.”


Brown admits that one trick, the Russian Scam, only works two-thirds of the time. Brown approaches an unsuspecting soul on the street, asking for directions. As the two conversed, Brown asked his target to hand over watch, wallet, cell phone, or other valuables. The individuals do so willingly, Brown thanks them for the directions, and they walk off in opposite directions, with Brown still in possession of the valuables. The targets typically only get a few feet before realizing what has happened and go chasing after Brown to recover the stolen items, which Brown gladly returns. In one case, Brown returned the items only to ask for them a second time, and the person complied again.


The premiere episode of Mind Control opened with a subliminal trick. Brown taped a 30-minute message to be played in a large shopping mall. On first listen, the message seemed innocuous, welcoming shoppers to the mall, mentioning specials, and wishing them a good experience. The “hidden” message as a matter of shifting words: instead of wishing shoppers an “uplifting experience,” he called it an “arm-lifting experience.” At the end of the message, Brown told shoppers to “head to the elevators now.” On hearing the word “now,” all shoppers stopped dead in their tracks and raised one arm above their heads.


The power of subliminal messages was also evident in a stunt featuring two advertising agents riding across town to meet Brown for a “job.” Brown gave them 20 minutes to generate ideas for a campaign for a new taxidermy shop, asking them to come up with a name for the business, a slogan, and a visual image to represent it. The two men came up with three different images, a name and slogan, after which Brown revealed his own ideas, all identical to theirs: the agents were dumbfounded.


Then Brown elucidated the trick. On the trip to meet Brown, the two men passed Brown’s version countless times, strategically placed on balloons, a cab placard, the back of a magazine, and other places. Before ever creating their own campaign, they had seen Brown’s drawing numerous times without realizing it. The masters of subliminal messages had fallen prey to their own tricks.


This willingness to expose his methodology distinguishes Brown from magicians or other mentalists (most notably, the Amazing Kreskin). The underlying message isn’t “Look how incredible I am,” so much as “Look how gullible you are.” Despite occasional failures, Brown’s work is frightening. The ease with which people are influenced inspires viewers to self-examination: surely, we think, we wouldn’t fall for that trick or be so easily controlled. At the same time, Brown never humiliates his victims.


Instead, he focuses on the process of tricks, including the fast pace of the cons. Without elaborate set-ups, the premiere episode had him accurately “guessing” how much money people had in their wallets and favorite pick-up lines. Like a magician, Brown uses distraction, specifically, conversation rather than a slew of flashy assistants. Although Brown repeatedly manipulates behavior, Mind Control ultimately comes across as a refreshingly honest endeavor. The tricks are entertaining, and the explanations revelatory.

Rating:

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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