Magic and television are not a natural fit. In our cynical age, we're inclined to write off a good illusion as a mere camera trick. But some series have overcome that credibility gap in one way or another, and on Tuesday "Wizard Wars," on Syfy, became the latest to try, using a competition format and an emphasis on magic done with everyday objects.
The format doesn't work, but the illusions do. It's 58 minutes of pretty amusing magic, building to a two-minute letdown.
Penn and Teller, who turn up on TV so often that you might think they live inside your set, are among the judges as four on-the-rise magicians compete against four more established ones. The idea is to see who can make the best trick using ordinary objects: Spam, a Super Soaker, eyeglasses, a chalk board and so on.
It's intricate stuff on a small stage, with a live audience looking on from close range, so you have a reasonable amount of confidence in what you're seeing. And it's rendered with spunk and sass, since showmanship is one of the judging criteria.
The spunk starts early as the four house magicians introduce themselves with quick signature bits. Shimshi, a Las Vegas magician and alumnus of "America's Got Talent," is especially dazzling, with an illusion in which he seems to relocate his own head, putting it where his abdomen ought to be.
The challengers get $10,000 if they are deemed better than the house wizards, but the tricks are all so good that the judges' decision at the end seems arbitrary.
And let's not overlook another show featuring the omnipresent duo, "Penn & Teller: Fool Us," which began in Britain and was brought to the United States by CW last month. (The next episode is tonight.) They are judging other magicians here as well, but in a different way. A trick is performed in front of an audience that includes Penn and Teller, and if they can figure out how it's done, they spill the beans, or at least some of them. (If not, the magician earns a gig in Las Vegas.)
The tricks are good, and the gimmick gives the proceedings an appealing insider feel.
WIZARD WARS. Produced by A. Smith & Co. Productions. Directed by Brenda Lowry; executive producers, Arthur Smith, Kent Weed, Frank Sinton, Tim Eagan, Penn Jillette and Teller. 10 p.m. Tuesdays. Syfy.