Given the number of self-proclaimed psychics parlaying their “gift” — and the public’s gullibility — into cable programs, there’s something decidedly refreshing about British import Derren Brown, whose mentalist routine is part magic act, part Jedi mind trick. Combining subliminal messages, distraction and God knows what else, Brown guesses the contents of wallets, influences an entire orchestra to play a designated tune and gets people to unwittingly hand over personal items on his new Sci Fi Channel show. However he pulls it off, just be thankful he uses his powers for good.
Pursuing his craft with a suave magician’s manner, Brown announces somewhat redundantly at the outset that there are “no actors or stooges” in the show. Avoiding big stunts, he keeps the hour moving briskly along by staging a variety of little ones — buying jewelry with blank slips of paper, guessing what pickup lines will seduce a model (finally: a reality show with practical applications), and, in the best gimmick, influencing a pair of advertising execs to dream up an ad campaign that fulfills his predictions.
That final bit of whimsy provides some insight into how Brown goes about manipulating his marks, but his methods are clearly varied. One of the more intriguing tricks is his use of subject-changing patter (asking for directions, say) in order to get people, inexplicably, to give up their wallets — an exchange those victimized follow with a vacant stare upon realizing they’ve been fleeced.
Whatever the basis for his routines — which Brown attributes to a mixture of “suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship” — it’s a stimulating look at the ways the human mind can be temporarily fooled and influenced (though some would say the Bush administration mastered this art years ago).
Sci Fi has ordered six episodes of the series, and it’s hard to imagine how Brown’s assortment of gimmickry can hold out even that long. Still, “Mind Control” is much cooler than your average foray into this realm, and by whatever methods its host employs, he has pretty well convinced me to watch again — a form of remote control that, in TV, remains the ultimate power.