ABC’s Deception is one of those ideas that’s so goofy, it sounds like a series Jenna Maroney would’ve guest-starred in on 30 Rock. Jack Cutmore-Scott stars as Cameron Black, a cocky celebrity illusionist who uses his skills to help the FBI catch criminals and solve problems. He’s a cross between David Copperfield (glitz, scale, and production value) and David Blaine (masochism, endurance tests, and the illusion of chaos), and Cutmore-Scott plays the character with permanent smirk that would be insufferable if the actor didn’t have a smidge of Greg Kinnear’s puppy-dog harmlessness. The series is set in a world where the FBI would not only enlist the services of a famous magician, but do so because Cameron realized that a criminal’s recent, spectacular escape from an airplane hangar was clearly the work of another person well-versed in the art of magic. In other words, Deception is a show where good magicians and bad magicians battle each other while the FBI unit (overseen by Ilfenesh Hadera’s Agent Kay Daniels) looks on, expressing amazement or exasperation at the magicians’ antics. There’s another, even goofier twist on the procedural formula that I’ll put in the next paragraph, which you can skip if you want — though the show itself doesn’t seem too keen on keeping it under wraps.
Deception deserves some credit for having the courage of its own ridiculousness. The show quickly reaches a state that a friend dubbed “maximum ludicrosity” when we learn that Cameron has a twin brother named Jonathan (also played by Cutmore-Scott). Jonathan’s existence has been kept a secret from the world by their magician father, who used him as the linchpin of a signature trick known as The Disappearing Boy. (Presumably the father will show up in future episodes; his absence is more interesting than most of the characters we meet in the flesh, including a Cameron associate played by the great English character actor Vinnie Jones.) It is Jonathan, not Cameron, who is arrested and jailed after a car wreck that killed a woman — depicted in the opening moments of the pilot — and Cameron volunteers his services to the FBI hoping to amass enough brownie points to get his brother sprung from jail. Kudos to the series for presenting this twist in a value-neutral way, as something that might actually happen in its ridiculous world. It dusts the first episode with a light coating of pixie dust that keeps sparking all the way to the end, even though nothing onscreen quite lives up to it in audacity.
Unfortunately, Deception is a show about the magic of illusion that has a great deal of difficulty being, y’know, magical. Series creator Chris Fedak (Chuck) seems to be aiming a tone in the vicinity of a Steven Soderbergh heist flick: slick, fast-moving, and droll, and always looking for ways to fake out the viewer just as the hero fakes out the folks he’s trying to fool with his magic. But there’s no snap in the storytelling or the filmmaking, just scenes of people talking, talking, talking while the camera sometimes cuts to whatever they’re talking about. Cameron never stops explaining things to other characters, most of whom seem to be there to argue with him or ask follow-up questions so that he has an excuse to explain things some more.
The best part of Sunday night’s pilot is the cold open, which finds Cameron setting up a big stunt involving swords, blowtorches, and a hanging chain that seems to go fatally awry. Of course he’s fine — a show like this isn’t going to kill its star in the first five minutes — but the sense of play in that relatively brief scene has no equivalent in the rest of the episode, which revolves around a drug cartel bigwig’s literally explosive disappearance from a corporate airstrip, a set-up that Cameron likens to an immense card trick.
One of the other FBI agents, Mike Alvarez (Amaury Nolasco), repeatedly warns Cameron to stop explaining how his tricks are done because he’s ruining them. There’s a case to be made that Cameron and Mike’s difference of opinion here amounts to a dialectical argument about the best way for Deception to present both its plot convolutions and its representations of magic: Should the show explain what’s happening while it’s happening and afterward, or just let us be carried along, knowing that if we ever get confused or frustrated, it’s just part of the experience of seeing a magic show? I’m partial to the second option. But that’s not how they do things on network TV, generally, so we’re stuck watching a lot of game actors struggle to jolt the show to the next level with their own, charisma-based magic. It’s a strategy that’s doomed to fail because the venue hasn’t supplied the performers with the materials they need to make the impossible seem plausible.