Depending on one’s political persuasion, 2018 either definitively is, or is not, a year in which there’s diversion to be mined from a narcissistic showman who can’t stop talking about how great he is on TV while making the FBI look outrageously dumb. Such is the conceit of the midseason replacement “Deception,” which is about a magician (played by Jack Cutmore-Scott) who helps the FBI solve crimes. Never rising above its hokey premise, the procedural is further sunk by transparent mysteries, hollow supporting characters, and a fatal lack of surprises. Ironically, it feels like the exact opposite of a successful trick: Nearly every turn is telegraphed early and often.
Some viewers tune into crime shows for the thrill of guessing what will happen next. But the whodunits in “Deception” are so foreseeable — even for a rare procedural watcher — that they seem designed to reward the predictions of even the most naive members of the audience.
A compelling cast can compensate for any number of weak storylines, of course. But “Deception” lacks that, too. Celebrity magician Cameron Black’s first encounter with law enforcement takes place the night of a legend-bolstering stunt: escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside down over a bed of swords that point upwards as the chains that hold him aloft are slowly blowtorched in two. It’s a deeply goofy, borderline campy spectacle — and the only bit of “magic” in the first three episodes that makes the show’s gimmick worthwhile. At least the breezy drama knows not to take itself too seriously.
A guy that looks a lot like Cameron — his twin brother Jonathan, in fact — is soon captured on video leaving the site of a fatal car crash, where a young woman lies dead. Cameron’s roundabout plan to spring his brother from jail: Crack the FBI’s cases for them, whether the Bureau wants him to or not. You know he’s begging for a eye roll or two when he channels Lena Dunham’s self-absorbed “Girls” character by calling himself a “once-in-a-generation kind of talent.”
There’s little new in the partnership between Cameron and Agent Kay Daniels (Ilfenesh Hadera), i.e., that of the intrepid male maverick and the scolding female goody-goody. Cutmore-Scott is passable in his dual roles, somehow charismatic while grating when he lays on the smarm. Hadera is saddled with the arguably more difficult role as the straight woman, but she lacks the spark to bring exposition dumps to life. She’s not helped by the show’s set-up, in which some rando off the street — albeit one armed with performance expertise — proves a better detective than a trained investigator and all of her colleagues. Cameron’s key insight is that all the world’s a stage — a guiding philosophy that may limit the show’s narrative variety moving forward. The writers’ efforts to demonstrate Cameron’s ingenuity are so over-the-top that they end up unwittingly turning all the federal agents into incompetent dopes. It’s simply not believable.
Ever so often — though not frequently enough — Cameron breaks the magician’s code to explain how a simple trick is done as part of a longer explanation of how illusion can catch a murderer, recover treasure, or resolve a hostage situation. He’s sometimes helped in this informal police work by his crew (Justin Chon, Lenora Crichlow, and Vinnie Jones), a snappy but barely sketched trio whose presence is thus far purely ornamental. It can’t be a good sign when nearly every scene with the sidekicks are spent wondering why they’d spend another second hanging around the hero.