“When you’re watching Psycho, there’ s that moment when you have a visceral reaction to watching someone being stabbed. And then you have the intellectual revelation that you’re not, and that’s where the celebration comes in.” — Penn Jillette
Circus peanuts are made of orange-colored marshmallow pressed into a peanut shape. Many people view them with repulsion, an artificial abomination that has nothing to do with nutrition, a product straddling the rather broad gap between food and Styrofoam. There are a few people, like myself, who harbor a secret affinity for this product. While slightly ashamed of enjoying them, I enjoy them nonetheless. There are several television programs that sort of fit into this guilty pleasure for me. These include, but are not limited to, Monday Night Raw, Storage Wars, and Battlebots. The main appeals to their audience by allowing them to turn off their minds for a little bit and allow the banality to wash over them.
It would seem easy to drop Penn & Teller: Fool Us, currently airing its third season On Demand and on the CW, as one of these shows, but to do so would sell the series short. The show consists of a series of professional magicians who take the stage and try to perform a trick to fool the shows two judges: Penn Jillette and Teller. The performance is a bit of an audition where the winner gets a part in Penn & Teller’s Las Vegas show. There are a few things that recommend the show beyond your standard talent show.
First and foremost is the consistently strong quality of the magicians. About half seem to know they’re performing tricks that the judges are definitely going to know. The magicians on the show can be broken down into three groups. First, there are the magicians who don’t fool either Penn or Teller or the audience. These are exceedingly rare. Those who do perform, however, are extremely professional, polished, and entertaining. Second, comprising the vast majority of the magicians on the show, bewilder the audience but don’t trick the judges. Finally, there are the rare ones who are able to fool everybody, including Penn and Teller.
Additionally, Penn Jillette’s commentary is unexpectedly refreshing. Prior to Fool Us, the two magicians leveraged their fame to create the series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! in which the two went on a mission to expose all of the con games in our modern world for what they are. The series perfectly matched Jillette’s self-constructed persona as a self-righteous libertarian ass, like the love child of Michael Moore and Larry Flint. From this past, the audience could easily expect him to be an American Simon Cowell, but just the opposite is the case. Jillette is universally positive. In Bullshit the two acted like two smartasses intent on humiliating pretension; in Fool Us, they take on a completely different persona. Penn’s gracious to the magicians who don’t fool him, and he reacts with glee and adoration to the ones that do. A reverence for their chosen field has distinguished the entire series.
Third, the show seems slightly faster paced than your traditional network talent show. Each segment consists of the acts being introduced, the actual trick, and Penn and Teller’s commentary on it. This pacing limits the amount of filler and makes the show far more interesting.
Finally, this year, Alyson Hannigan (American Pie, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and How I Meet Your Mother ) hosts the show. Arguably best known for playing sorceress Willow Rosenberg in Buffy, she seems like a natural choice. Hannigan’s main job is to act as a proxy for the audience and be amazed and bewildered by the guest magicians. This casts her as a kind of everyman. Despite her considerable celebrity, Hannigan nails this role.
There’s one aspect of the show that disappoints. Since the beginning of the series, Penn & Teller would end each show with a magic trick. In the early years of the show, it would end with Penn & Teller walking the crowd through a simple magic trick. They would perform it legitimately first, and then they would do it in a way that showed how the trick was done. Next, they would culminate the segment with a much more difficult trick that would blow the audience’s mind. This year, their final pieces have dipped in quality. They end one episode with a box magic trick in which Teller seems to be split into separate parts and reassembled. They do the trick once as a normal magician would, and then they do it again using clear boxes. As entertaining as the reveal is, it isn’t the same as ending on a mind-blowing magic trick.
Fool Us is by no means great television. In its most cynical interpretation, it’s a kind of hybrid of The Apprentice and an infomercial for Penn & Teller’s Vegas act. It is, however, highly entertaining. It’s also not devoid of merit. Penn & Teller’s reverence of and respect for the vocation elevates the show considerably above mere brain candy.