Do You Believe in Criss Angel?

Magician’s new TV series hamstrung by image dichotomy

Criss Angel

When your best trick technically isn’t a trick, that’s an even better trick.

Kudos, by that measurement, to Criss Angel, whose new, filmed-in-Vegas Spike TV series, Criss Angel BeLIEve (named after his Strip production), both humanizes and deifies him, framing him simultaneously as a guy and a god.

That’s not trickery. That’s TV Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Give Angel his professional due—he’s a fearless, brilliant prestidigitator, and his new series is a feast of feats. One major stunt anchors each episode—escaping while manacled from a coffin buried under cement; a blind high-wire walk; fleetingly returning breath to a cadaver (don’t ask).

Garnishing the biggies are street tricks (often gross), turning onlookers into astonished participants: sucking a goldfish out of a woman’s arm; swallowing needles and thread and pulling them out his belly button; bloodlessly impaling a woman on a spike.

Briskly paced, BeLIEve is well-structured in a reality-show format, beginning with a pre-credit trick—say, having volunteers lay on park benches, then pulling them apart by their torsos and switching their body halves as witnesses scream and nearly faint. Quickly it segues into segments threaded throughout the show of Angel and his “team” planning the marquee stunt, from conception to execution, at his “Magic Factory.”

We’re never bored, and frequently stunned, even if the additional tools of trickery available via TV of clever editing and deceptive camera angles (we’re not saying they’re used, per se) could add another layer of skepticism.

More bothersome is a tonal schizophrenia afflicting BeLIEve.

In a reality-show setting that frees him from the sensory-overload theatrics of his stage persona—that showman-cum-narcissist rep that’s plagued his media coverage—Angel comes across as a down-to-earth dude. Watching him dazzle bystanders pulled into his shenanigans, and address the camera to discuss the philosophy of his art, he’s like a goth imp.

Then the imp is eaten by the egotist.

Apparently Angel’s levitating, Christ-like pose over the show credits isn’t enough idolization, so at the planning meetings, he’s seated in a throne-like chair, a semicircle of acolytes surrounding him.

Wow. God and King. Self-satisfied pomposity seems to overtake him—and entire segments devoted to his signature big-ticket feats. Should we be drawn in by his charm at some moments or distanced by his arrogance in others?

Reconciling those is a trick most viewers can’t pull off.

STRIP POSTSCRIPT: “Extension” is our word of the week, given that three were recently announced for high-profile Strip performers. Topping the pecking order is Shania Twain, who is wrapping the first year of her two-year residency at Caesars Palace and has locked in early 2014 dates, from January 22 to February 15. Over at The Mirage, Boyz II Men’s stay has been stretched through 2014, and singing impressionist Véronic DiCaire, who was to finish at Bally’s on December 21, will now stick around at least through January 18.

Fortunately, at least where these acts are concerned, that snarky old expression—how can we miss you if you never leave?—has been stricken from the Vegas vernacular.

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