I totally get why it’s dorky to be into magic. Most magic acts are very cheesy and require a high tolerance for earnestness. There’s a lot of satin and glitter and bow ties. But at the heart of magic is wanting to believe in something amazing happening right in front of your face. There’s a reason magic reaction gifs are so beloved. Our dumb lizard brains freak out when our eyes see something that doesn’t make sense. At a certain point our more boring, logical human brains kick in and rationally conclude that the magician has a specially rigged box or he can manipulate cards really well or he’s just got an insanely good memory. That’s part of the fun of magic too, though — trying to figure out how the trick works.
From David Blaine to Harry Houdini to ancient Egyptian conjurers, magicians have captured the public’s attention for as long as human beings have been able to manipulate each others’ senses. As technology has advanced, techniques have gotten more sophisticated, but the effect is always the same: the seamless execution of a seemingly impossible feat. Here, we round up some of our favorite magic shows, specials, and documentaries you can check out right now to explore this beautiful, dorky art form in all its glory.
David Blaine: Ascension
It’s a shame that most of David Blaine’s TV specials aren’t available to stream anywhere. I’m especially sad I can’t watch his first special, Street Magic, which is my favorite kind of magic because it’s just so pure — a man-on-the-street act where he amazes random passersby. But as his career has progressed, Blaine has turned his focus to acts that are “magic” in the sense that it’s amazing a human being can endure them. He stood in a block of ice in the middle of Times Square for 63-ish hours. He lived in a plexiglass cube suspended over London for 44 days. His latest stunt involved floating above the earth while holding onto a giant bundle of balloons à la the house in Up.
OMG moment: The special opens with Blaine introducing the stunt to his 10-year-old daughter, which really makes you realize, “Oh shit he could die.” (Streaming on YouTube)
In & Of Itself
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself was championed by the likes of Neil Patrick Harris (who produced the stage show) and Stephen Colbert (who coproduced the film). Both the Off Broadway run and the film were directed by Frank Oz. Tim Gunn, Larry Wilmore, Bill Gates, and Marina Abramovic can be spotted in the audience. But defining In & Of Itself by its celebrity clout goes against its core premise. More performance art than magic special, In & Of Itself is a meditation on identity, about how the world defines you and how you let that determine how you define yourself. That’s not to say there aren’t some seriously impressive magic tricks to be seen here, just that the framing meant that I was left asking “Why?” rather than “How’d he do that?”
OMG moment: Before walking into the theater, each audience member chose a card with an identity marker on it. “I am a father,” “I am a lawyer,” “I am a visionary,” “I am a unicorn,” etc. At the climax of the show, DelGaudio asks (some of) the audience to stand up and he recites their chosen identity back to them. (Streaming on Hulu)
Derren Brown’s mentalism act is all about psychological manipulation — from convincing a skeptic he can’t read to hypnotizing a gamer and dropping him into a real-life recreation of the zombie game he was playing. But The Push is by far his most queasy manipulation yet. The premise is simple: Can Brown use social conditioning to convince someone to commit murder? It’s harrowing to watch but also kinda impossible not to get sucked in as the unwitting participant helps an actor (posing as a charity director) conceal a dead body. If you’re the type of person who skips “Scott’s Tots” on The Office rewatches, The Push might be too much for you, but fans of Nathan for You should be able to stomach it.
OMG moment: I won’t spoil it here, but the last two minutes are wild. (Streaming on Netflix)
Magic TV Shows
The Carbonaro Effect
The Carbonaro Effect shares a network with Impractical Jokers, which makes a lot of sense. They’re both kinda bro-y, hidden-camera prank shows in the vein of Punk’d. But Carbonaro’s gimmick is that his pranks are magic based: He poses as a grocery-store clerk and turns cabbage into Brussels sprouts. He poses as a dog groomer and makes a puppy disappear. He poses as a car wash attendant and breaks — then fixes — a car window. It’s cute!
Criss Angel: Mindfreak
Oh, Criss Angel. He took one of the dorkiest professions imaginable — magician — and tried to make it ~edgy~. But of course there’s nothing dorkier than trying to be edgy. Often parodied, Mindfreak is a mid-aughts relic that’s actually a lot of fun to revisit. Come for the Hot Topic aesthetic, stay for the delightful realization that Angel takes himself a little less seriously than you remember. And also some pretty neat stunts.
OMG moment: In the season-six premiere, Angel drives off a ramp over the Grand Canyon, and appears seconds later in a locked cage suspended by a helicopter. (Streaming on DirecTV)
Death By Magic
The premise of magician (and heir apparent to an English Barony) Drummond Money-Coutts’s series is that he travels around the world attempting magic tricks that proved fatal to other magicians. In Miami, he escapes a flooding car. In London, he gets buried alive. And in Detroit, he puts his life into strangers’ hands by letting them choose a rope to cut as he stands under three suspended objects. Along the way he explains what happened to his predecessors and why — and how he plans to improve the tricks and avoid certain death. It’s a little bit history lesson, a little bit process piece, and a little bit voyeurism as you watch Money-Coutts try not to die.
OMG moment: In the series premiere, Money-Coutts appears to be stuck in a steamer trunk that is crushed by a train, only to appear on the caboose. (Streaming on Netflix)
Magic for Humans
Justin Willman is as much a comedian as he is a magician, and his Netflix magic show is light on spectacle, heavy on bits. There are recurring man-on-the-street segments like “Magic For Susans,” in which Willman performs a close-up magic trick for a different person named Susan, and “Spoiler Alert,” in which Willman “spoils” the trick before performing it. Each episode is loosely tied together by a theme — time, sex, fatherhood, self-care — but the fun is in watching random citizens of Los Angeles be amazed and tickled by Willman’s tricks.
OMG moment: In one episode, Willman convinces someone that a rubber arm is his own, going so far as to smash the ersatz hand with a hammer — the participant yelps in agony. (Streaming on Netflix)
Penn & Teller: Fool Us
Penn & Teller have been giants in the magic industry for 40 years, appearing on late night TV, guest starring on sitcoms, and hosting a Showtime series — on top of putting out books, specials, and stage shows dedicated to the craft of magic. But Fool Us isn’t about the magic of Penn & Teller, it’s a showcase for other magicians to try and stump Penn & Teller with their own acts. So as not to give away any trade secrets, however, Penn Jillette communicates in a kind of code to indicate whether or not he and Teller figured out the trick — part of the fun of watching Fool Us is in trying to interpret those hints. (And don’t worry: The iconic duo also perform a segment of their own at the end of each episode.)
OMG moment: Because of the nature of the show, most of the acts focus more on technicality than spectacle. Still, there’s something mesmerizing about watching sleight of hand done well, like Ryan Hayashi’s coin trick that fooled Penn & Teller. (Streaming on the CW)
The Amazing Jonathan
Director Ben Berman (Comedy Bang! Bang!) set out to make a documentary about the popular ’80s comedy magician “The Amazing” Johnathan Szeles as he embarks on his final tour. Szeles suffers from both a meth addiction and a “serious heart condition” and, according to him, in 2014 he was given a year to live. Things get increasingly bizarre, though, as Berman finds out that he’s not the only one making a documentary about Szeles — but some of the facts don’t quite add up.
As Michael Caine explains in The Prestige, a magic trick has three acts: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige, with the third act being the hardest to pull off. “Making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.” If learning about the competing documentaries is the turn, Berman pulls off a killer prestige. To describe it here would do his filmmaking a disservice, but suffice it to say, it’s amazing. (Streaming on Hulu)
An Honest Liar
This documentary about the magician and professional skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi begins as a pretty typical biography of an interesting person near the end of his life. (The doc was filmed in 2013; Randi died in 2020 at the age of 92.) Randi walks us through his life story, from joining the circus at 17 and becoming a prolific escape artist to dedicating his life to uncovering fraudulent faith healers and psychics. But at the beginning of the third act, police raid Randi’s home and arrest his partner of 25 years, José Alvarez, who had been living under a false identity. The narrative then shifts to Randi’s desperation to bring Alvarez home, pointing out the irony that a man so dedicated to uncovering truth was living with a huge deception at the center of his life. (Streaming on IMDb TV via Amazon Prime)
Make Believe follows six young magicians as they prepare for the Teen World Champion magic competition. It really hits home how difficult a hobby magic is; in order to make a career out of it, you have to make it look effortless. Certain techniques take years to master, and most of the contestants spend hours rehearsing every day. Since we watch the young magicians prepare their acts for the first hour of the film, watching it come together in the final performance is almost as exciting for the audience as it is for the performers. So when one of the contestants — who’s established as a perfectionist — messes up her act, it’s a total gut punch. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)