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Part of what makes standup specials such a viable option in the age of limitless Netflix content is that a good joke can transcend any medium. Few things compare to being in the room for an amazing set, but when audiences connect to a bit of comedy, having an extra screen as an intermediary doesn’t always dilute the power of the performance in the room.
Unlocking the intricacies of human brain function via magic powers isn’t as easy of a translation. One of the most unfortunately apropos examples of said difficulty is “Derren Brown: Miracle,” a special recently released as part of an ongoing collaboration between the popular British illusionist and Netflix. Filmed at the Palace Theatre during the 2015-16 run of his one-man show, “Miracle” is the second special to drop on Netflix so far this year. The first was “The Push,” an elaborate sociological experiment designed to see if one unassuming man could be slowly convinced to murder another human being.
“The Push” had an inescapable dash of voyeurism, but seeing how the main participant navigated his way through a series of unexpected challenges held a certain storytelling power as a filmed piece of entertainment. In some ways, it’s the best of both worlds: Brown had an excuse to present something unfolding in real-time, commenting on the subject’s individual choices from the safe removal of a control room.
“Miracle” puts Brown in an even more omniscient position, slowly using his particular brand of philosophical trickery to challenge the notion of “faith healing.” Amidst some impressive sleight-of-hand feats, Brown eventually uses this stage show to argue the inexplicable has more to do with the capacities of the human mind than a benevolent deity. Leading hundreds of audience members in a group healing session, “curing” bad eyesight and bum knees alike, there’s a sense of immediacy that gets lost having to experience all of these displays secondhand.
Without that palpable, tangible feeling of being in the room as this happens, all that’s left is trying to figure out how why. While it’s better executed and inherently more fascinating, there are certain reveals on the show akin to Neil Patrick Harris’ Oscars reveal from a few years ago. Past a certain point, it’s hard to shake the assumption that, if it made it this far to a streaming service, there’s no risk any of these carefully crafted bits of psychological work go disastrously awry.
Part of what made “The Push” so interesting — even as its immersive theatrical experience was engaging an audience of one — was its ability to hop out of the experiment and give context. Pulling the curtain back on the casting process elevates it from being a basic manipulative exercise. From the glimpse into making a body double to the end twist, there’s a valuable element of Brown gleefully breaking the first rule of magic: Don’t tell them how you did it.
The farewell message of “The Push” is an audience empowerment tale, warning against the dangers of social complicity and looking at how unquestioned adherence to authority doesn’t always come from people in official positions. What can occasionally make “Miracle” seem a little frustrating by comparison is that Brown himself is the sole conduit. Part of that is the very nature of what he’s doing, showing that, in his view, authority figures within faith circles are doing the same thing. But these goals make him a professor in front of a lecture hall; a TED talk with some flashy sleights of hand baked in.
The intention is to find a sense of value in the collective power of human determination, particularly as an alternative to believe in a higher power. Regardless of whether or not you accept those two things are mutually exclusive, “Miracle” still has the problem of never being able to prove the people in the audience are plants. Some spontaneous-seeming bits of happenstance would be incredibly difficult to orchestrate. But if the point is to cut through a certain preoccupation with belief and how all things extraordinary carry with them a logical explanation, it seems odd the entire premise of the show is built around having to trust that the very person who is debunking the concept of faith is someone you have to believe is telling the truth.
This is not to say it’s impossible for a theatrical experience to be filmed and have substantial entertainment value in any ol’ living room. The swallowing broken glass bit is just as wild here as it was when Brown demo’d it with James Corden on “The Late Late Show,” and the show’s final kicker is still an impressive piece of showmanship. But with every transition, cut, and selective framing, there’s always the idea something else is just out of reach. It’s what makes the coin trick section of “Miracle” the best part of the entire special. As Brown narrates the experience of snatching 50p from an audience member’s hands, it’s two people interacting in a way that doesn’t rely on something you can’t see. Even in spelling out the entire basis for him being able to manipulate somebody else, there’s still something to be gained by seeing Brown lay everything out within frame.
Amidst the not-so-subtle prosperity gospel critiques, Brown still finds moments that add a universal sense of dread and shock. Bringing audience members into two potentially dangerous set-pieces capture some of the dark thrills that came with turning the tables on those involved in “The Push.” But watching a line of would-be converts relate their newfound cures is akin to listening to someone describe their dreams. It doesn’t negate the power it has over that individual, but there’s still a missing piece for anyone else. Brown’s work is, by design, all in people’s heads. Sometimes it just lacks the same power if you can’t see him with your own eyes.
“Derren Brown: Miracle” is now available to stream on Netflix.