Thursday, April 5, 2018

Collaboration is Key: ABC’s Deception

Jack Cutmore-Scott and Ilfenesh Hadera in Deception.

“As with any good magic trick, they each had a role to play.” – Cameron Black, Deception
A celebrity magician consults with the FBI to help solve crimes: hands up if you think you’ve seen this show before. Well, you’re not wrong. The formula – if not this particular recipe – is tried and true. In recent years alone, a neuropsychiatrist (Perception), a pathologist (Rosewood), a tech billionaire (APB), a mathematician (Numb3rs), a crime novelist (Castle), a disgraced “psychic” (The Mentalist), a “reformed” con man (White Collar), an international criminal mastermind (The Blacklist), a magician and a crime novelist (Houdini & Doyle), and even a mystical time traveller (Sleepy Hollow) have shown up to help the police. (This brief list doesn’t even begin to recount the endless parade of eccentric “consulting detectives” that have come and gone since the days of Arthur Coyle Doyle – only half of whom are named “Sherlock.”) Besides the shifting specialties of the outsider, these series are also differentiated by the quirks and charisma of the (almost universally male) lead character, as well as the baggage they show up with. But all share a basic presupposition: law enforcement, whether they want it or not, needs outside help to do their jobs. Because he isn't limited either by stale “in the box” thinking or by institutional handcuffs, the amateur invariably provides what the cops need, just when they need it. These shows know just about enough about the actual work of law enforcement to paint the institutions of justice with varying levels of casual disdain. That said, while some of these shows are smart, entertaining fare (Castle, Numb3rs), they are also just as regularly insulting to the audience’s basic intelligence (Rosewood, and especially APB). Deception, which premiered on ABC four weeks ago, is shaping up to fall in the former category, so far successfully sidestepping many of the more insidious shortcomings of the formula.

Deception stars Jack Cutmore-Scott ( Kingsman: The Secret Service ) as Cameron Black, a superstar Vegas illusionist who is thrust out of his celebrity lifestyle after his (secret!) twin brother – also played by Cutmore-Scott – is framed for murder. Committed to tracking down the mysterious female illusionist behind it all, he shakes off his depressive cobwebs and – with his team of associates – becomes a consultant for the Manhattan bureau of the FBI. If that sounds silly, it is. But to the show’s credit, it knows it, embracing the ridiculous on a regular basis (the pilot episode’s plot centres, for example, on a disappearing full-size airplane). His FBI partner is Kay Daniels (Ilfenesh Hadera, Show Me a Hero, Billions). Daniels is suitably gorgeous (the formula also almost always includes a runway-ready female cop who somehow chases down criminals in 4-inch heels), and is , of course, intermittently sceptical of the value of her new ‘asset’.

Deception is the first solo-credited television series for Chris Fedak, who co-created Chuck with Josh Schwartz in 2007. The new series is not nearly as ambitiously fun as Chuck and borrows from a very different playbook. Deception draws most obviously from ABC’s own Castle – which also boasted a charismatic celebrity (played by Nathan Fillion) slumming it with New York City law enforcement – and CBS’s The Mentalist, whose main character regularly used his stage skills to catch bad guys. (On the last point, it doesn’t help that the unshaven Cutmore-Scott often looks like a bright-eyed Millennial doppelgänger for The Mentalist’s Simon Baker.) The departure of both mainstay series (Castle, in 2016, after 8 seasons; The Mentalist, the year earlier, after 7) has certainly left a light-police-procedural-sized hole in network prime time, and Deception is no doubt eager to grab that brass ring.

Castle worked right off the bat because of Rick Castle’s easy charm and natural chemistry with homicide detective (and love interest) Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). The formula leaned heavily on the professional and personal partnership of Beckett and Castle, and their mutual affection and respect kept the series going – at least until the conspiracy plotlines became so top-heavy that even that relationship got lost in the murk of overlapping conspiracies, with the series spending most of its energy over its last two seasons making sure its two (romantic) leads never spent any time together on screen. But I am not embarrassed to say that those early seasons were a blast, and for a while there, the series was among my most loved and eagerly anticipated network dramas.

On the other hand, The Mentalist and APB (see my review of the thankfully short-lived FOX series) demonstrate the worst of the formula – presenting a charming face to a deep-seated contempt for institutions of law as such. As The Mentalist regularly testified to, this is more than a merely conceptual problem for a crime drama. Taking off from the premise that sticking to business as usual for the FBI means being either corrupt or useless, former mentalist (and borderline sociopath) Patrick Jane spent his seven seasons ensuring that vengeance displaced any notion of justice, dragging everyone in his ambit to his depths. (This would have been fine had the series been even remotely aware of this creeping cynicism and not continued to applaud its lead character at most every turn.)

Lenora Crichlow and Vinnie Jones in Deception.

Deception unapologetically presents itself as the heir of both, bringing with it some of those shows’ strengths but also some of their weaknesses. After Deception’s pilot, I was underwhelmed and mostly present to the ways the show wasn’t as good at being Castle as Castle (the chemistry between Cameron and Kay felt forced and awkward), and reminding me just enough of The Mentalist to trigger a near-gag reflex. But after four episodes, the show has proved diverting and original enough to keep both comparisons comfortably at bay.

Cutmore-Scott is charming enough as Cameron – to say that he is no Nathan Fillion says more about Fillion’s preternatural charisma than anything really critical about Cutmore-Scott – and he has enough of Rick Castle's genuineness in him to foreclose the risk of nihilism exposed in The Mentalist. Like Patrick Jane, Cameron shows up with his own axe to grind – eager to prove his brother innocent and gain his freedom – but he also has enough faith in the system, and the virtues of teamwork, to never fall victim to the vigilante subtext of the CBS series. But Cameron also has an almost sweet naiveté that comes from his sheltered life in the spotlight since boyhood and the same insecurity of a celebrity that Fillion so perfectly portrayed: the benign narcissism, eagerness to be liked and a sincere sense of the narrowness of his own abilities. (One early example: in the show’s second episode, after an initial lone-wolf action – entered into more from enthusiasm than arrogance – which puts not only his life but the entire case at risk, Cameron fesses up to the mistake and thereafter waits until invited before stepping into the fray.)

Putting Cutmore-Scott in the position of playing second fiddle to himself is a particular challenge (for the series and for the actor), and if there’s one weakness in these early episodes it’s that his brother Johnny – taciturn and hard-boiled – is currently the more compelling character of the two. The (credulity-straining) premise is that the Blacks’ magician father kept the second twin a secret in order to perform a signature illusion, and Cameron continues that charade in his own adult career, in order to perform comparably “impossible” tricks. But once you let go of your (entirely rational) disbelief that a human being’s very existence can be concealed for three decades, dramatically it has some powerful potential. Johnny is a survivor, living his entire life in the shadows, and (if you pardon the pun) is a man without illusions. He is analytical and plotting, and Cameron is flash and showmanship. Johnny’s a loner, sceptical of everyone and everything. Putting that face to face across from Cameron’s enthusiastic and (perhaps too naïve) faith in others allows the series to stage conversations that in another story would only be internal. (Cameron’s got some darkness in him too, of course, and I don't think we'll have to wait too long for the episode where Cameron and Johnny swap places, giving Cameron the chance to walk a few dark miles in his brother’s shoes.)

If you’ve only seen the pilot, you couldn’t be faulted for finding Deception disappointing, and even dull. The first couple of episodes, eager to set the stage and lay out the show’s conceit, left most of the characters going through clichéd motions. But by last week’s fourth episode, the dynamics and unique relationships of the larger team, beyond Kay and Cameron, have begun to surface. The farther the show moves from having to justify its ridiculous premise, and with the show’s promised cat-and-mouse story with a mysterious nemesis temporarily back-burnered, these last two episodes let the series reveal its smaller, character-based strengths. (It also gave Kay the chance to demonstrate that she’s actually a pretty good cop.)

Despite the fact that he plays two roles, Deception isn’t merely Cutmore-Scott’s show. Cameron shows up with his Vegas crew – including producer Dina (British actress Lenora Crichlow, BBC’s Being Human ) and props master Gunter (footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones – previously show-stealing as Gareth, King Richard’s right hand on ABC’s Galavant – who brings his brutish Cockney best to the role). For all the sleight-of-hand and illusionism, it’s the enrolling power of teamwork that makes those later episodes so much fun.

Deception might be unapologetically formulaic, but it’s not paint-by-numbers. In the end, whether it’s the practiced group work of the Vegas crew or the new team-up with the FBI, collaboration is key – both for the characters and for the show itself. Does it all make sense? Well, no, but as with any good magic trick, that can be part of the fun too.

Deception airs on Sundays on ABC and CTV (in Canada).

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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