In a way, “Phenomenon” inaugurates the Ben Silverman era at NBC, drawing from the new entertainment chief’s bag of tricks as an agent and producer — a proven international format (in this case from Israel) with a sensational-sounding hook and the edginess of live TV. Too bad that the series itself amounts to little more than “Last Magician Standing” — just another talent contest, only with mentalists/illusionists vying to make their competition disappear. Premiere ratings were respectable but far from living up to the title.
Mentalist Uri Geller and magician Criss Angel serve as “experts,” but they’re poorly cast for the task at hand. Angel, harsher in judging the performers, struggles to articulate his opinions, while Geller seems wowed by just about anything. In that regard, unfortunately, he took a back seat to “Access Hollywood’s” Tim Vincent, who was so giddily enthusiastic (“spellbinding!” he exclaimed at one point) that on the one contestant both panned, Vincent scored it a split decision.
Only four of the 10 hopefuls performed Wednesday, with the remainder to get their chance next week during a two-hour Halloween episode. For the most part, the initial acts were strictly the small room at the Magic Castle, although NBC and the producers labored to drum up suspense with the eerie music and “Do Not Attempt This At Any Time” warnings.
Actually, to borrow from the Darwin Awards philosophy, anybody dumb enough to shoot himself in the head with a nail gun after seeing it on TV might not belong in the gene pool.
Along with the performances (garnished, needlessly, with B-list celebrity guests like Carmen Electra and “Tonight Show” intern Ross Mathews) and tedious back-story introductions, the show also threw in an old Geller favorite, albeit with an Internet-age twist. Staring into the camera, the mentalist sought to project one of five symbols into the heads of viewers at home. When the online voting breakdown came back at 28% for his choice — barely topping the second-place finisher at 27% — it was hard not to think that if Geller were competing, he’d be among the first to get gonged.
NBC has done a creditable job promoting the show on its sci-fi-heavy lineup, and there has been a marginal network-sized audience in the past for the likes of David Blaine and David Copperfield. Yet in terms of fascination level, “Phenomenon” lags well behind the polished star of “Mind Control With Derren Brown” on NBC Universal’s sister Sci Fi Channel, and as Fox’s “The Next Great American Band” demonstrated, expecting a substantial audience for tired wrinkles on talent searches is, at this juncture, a helluva lot to ask.
Of course, if Geller’s still all that, maybe he can project his thoughts into the ether and convince a few million more impressionable souls to tune in for the show’s duration. If not, NBC will be reminded that in TV, it doesn’t require any magic to go up in smoke.