I just finished watching all of the Penn & Teller: Fool Us available on Canadian Netflix. Granted, this isn’t the whole series, it’s just, oddly enough, the second season. It’s also aired out of order from the original airdates but we’re Canadians so we’re used to our Netflix catalogues being a tad wonky. So no, I haven’t seen Seasons 1 & 3 so it’s probably irresponsible to make broad declarations about its overall quality. Yet, here I am, loudly stating that this show could easily be my favourite reality show ever. Here’s why.
Magic is Cool
It’s a unique and special (I’m trying to not say magical) experience to witness a good magic trick. It’s like your brain breaks a little bit because it hasn’t yet figured out how to categorize the experience. You know it’s an illusion but for a second your mind is open to the possibility that you’re seeing actual magic, even if it doesn’t ever admit it.
The Format (And Their Willingness To Break It)
There are some parts of the show that are totally constant. Four magicians (or, in some cases two-person acts) get the opportunity to perform a trick with the goal of fooling famous magician team Penn & Teller. If the illusionist is successful at stumping Penn & Teller about how the trick is done, they will win the opportunity to perform with Penn & Teller for one night as part of their their long-running Vegas stage show. Every magician is introduced with a short video package, they perform their illusion, they do a recap with the host (then Jonathan Ross in the season I saw, now Alyson Hannigan), and then debrief with Penn & Teller. It’s clean and tight format that moves the action along quickly.
Where the show deviates from its mission statement is in what happens during the magicians’ performances. The goal is to fool Penn & Teller with a single trick but some performers are given the opportunity to do a whole routine containing multiple illusions. And you know what, that’s okay, because, winning barely matters, so being a stickler for the rules just ruins the fun.
The (Relatively) Low Stakes
The reason it’s fine to be loose with the rules is because, for a competition-based reality shows, winning the contest is only one way of succeeding on the show. As I mentioned, the prize is an expenses-paid trip to Vegas for a single performance. It’s a cool prize but barely anyone is playing to win. They’re playing to either earn the respect of their peers or to put on a good show for a nationwide television audience, in hopes of booking lucrative gigs.
Sure, there are those who pull off a truly astonishing trick, leaving Penn & Teller completely baffled. These are amazing moments and are generally the highlights of the series. On the other hand, there are also those who win on a technicality, which can be a bit annoying. During the debrief, you occasionally hear a less-remarkable performer say “Well you could do it that way, but that’s not how I did it” and they end up winning but, again, it doesn’t matter. The magicians on Fool Us are among the best in their craft and they’re simply showing you what they can do.
True Reality TV
There’s a certain irony to how genuine Fool Us feels considering it celebrates professional liars. But its low-stakes competition means that no one (or at least very few people) are looking to game the system. No one seems to be playing up reality show tropes or performing outside of their skillset. You get the chance to be on Fool Us by being good at what you do. In order to get anything from the experience, you have to be true to whatever brought you to the dance. Nobody on that stage has learned a new trick just for this audience. Instead, they’re bringing their best, most unique, and best-rehearsed material.
Sure, there’s pretense, but it’s pretense that existed before the show did. People aren’t crafting reality TV personas for the sake of the show, they’re showing off the personas they’ve already crafted.
Penn & Teller
If you have a performance career that’s entering its fourth decade, you’ve probably got a lot figured out. Penn & Teller are practiced, professional entertainers who are incredibly well-suited for the job of snooping out the secrets behind others’ illusions. Not only is the duo well-versed in many of the secrets of magic, they’re also synonymous with exposing bullshit (as seen on their appropriately-named, long-running documentary series Penn & Teller: Bullshit!).
As in their magic shows, Penn acts as the mouthpiece of the team, engaging with the performers during the debrief. Teller, on the other hand, is played up as the “real brains” of the operation, offering only occasional input through sketches and mime. It’s a wonderful dynamic that translates (somewhat surprisingly) well to this format.
As well, every episode ends with a performance from Penn & Teller. Sometimes they’ll perform a trick, other times they’ll expose one. Rarely is there an instance where they don’t come across as the most polished magicians of the episode.
Fool Us has a lot of respect for the art of magic. While there is no attempt to try to insist that magic is “real,” it treats the skill involved in performing illusions as a craft, honed over years of practice. The performers treat Penn & Teller with respect and the duo offers the same in return. In one case, a magician was given the “Fooled Us” trophy moreso because of his legacy in the craft, rather than because of actually being baffled. Even the host, whose job it is to keep things moving with comedy, takes the occasional jab at the silliness of magic without devaluing the art.
The respect for magic is never more evident than when Penn is tasked with explaining to the magician why they did or did not fool Penn & Teller. Firstly, Penn is (almost) always smiling and positive during the assessment. The most notable exception is when he yelled at a contestant for being too good, leading Penn to feel frustrated at being unable to keep up with the trick.
Penn & Teller aren’t there to act as judges, so no criticism is ever put forward. Instead, Penn will justify why he’s confident that the duo does understand how the illusion is performed. In doing so, he dances around blatantly exposing the trick, opting to speak in hints and codes. That way, the performer can rest assured that they didn’t fool the duo but without having their livelihoods torn to shreds on national TV.
Those hints, as Penn mentions, are not simply intended as a code to the magicians onstage. They’re also meant to be breadcrumbs for the audience at home. For me, watching the show made me hungry to understand what was going on. For others, the illusion is the real thrill and they’re much happier not knowing. The audience has the chance to follow whichever path they would prefer. So, if you want, you can dig into Penn’s clues and you can search Google, message boards, and YouTube to discover how the trick is done (or even how you could do it yourself), or you can just let the codes wash over you as jargon and enjoy the performances from the outside looking in. It’s like there are two different shows running at the same time and the real magic is the ability to pick which one you want to watch.