Penn & Teller don't stop at "amazing"; they go on from there. The audaciously revisionist comedy magicians and their electrifying oddball act come to public television tonight in the appropriately titled "Penn & Teller Go Public," at 9 on Channels 26 and 32.
Penn, who is Penn Jillette, and Teller, who is, well, Teller, not only go public; they go bananas, they go off the deep end, and they sometimes rather unnervingly Go Too Far. They take centuries-old staples of the magic trade and turn them inside out, giving away the secrets to old tricks while impressively inventing new ones. On their half-hour special tonight, their prestidigitational paraphernalia includes a straitjacket, gravity boots, flaming kebabbers and the inevitable deck of cards, but nothing they do is without a fresh surprise. They are, to stretch a term, but not to stretch it all that far really, miraculous.
Penn, the tall one, does all the talking; Teller, elfin in an evil sort of way, does much of the suffering, often with a haunting Harry Langdon smile on his face. Their opening routine tonight not only spoofs magicians, it takes a few well-earned digs at public television, too. A nervous recitation of "Casey at the Bat" figures prominently. Later there will be fire eating, a demonstration of how sleight of hand works, and a trick that viewers can use later on other people, providing they have their VCRs and a blank tape (or one with an old "Masterpiece Theatre" on it, Penn says) at the ready.
At first dismissing the team as "sensationalist, circus-schlock hacks," Penn later declares, "We're a couple of very eccentric guys who've learned how to do a few cool things." There are moments when their pranks border on delicious malicious mischief -- when, as they did during a recent appearance on the David Letterman show, and as they do with the shock capper to a simple card trick tonight, they take magic to another theatrical plane well beyond mere trickery.
As a result, you are compelled to keep up the kind of attentiveness you normally reserve for things like driving on a rainy night or searching the dryer for socks that match. There is a seductive dark streak to their shenanigans, and their act has the most distinctive dangerous edge seen on a stage since the late Andy Kaufman mimed "Mighty Mouse."
The public TV special was directed by Cordelia Stone, to whom Penn sometimes calls out things like "We'll do an edit" when a trick appears to be misfiring. Even in a spirit of playfulness, however, it is morally wrong for the announcer at the beginning of the show to call it "live" from Los Angeles, when it was in fact taped there, by KCET-TV, last summer. Still, that's a small quibble to level at what is otherwise a daring display of inventive bravado. Penn & Teller are, not to stretch a term one bit, marvelous. 'Neon'
One half-hour of public television tonight consists almost entirely of ads -- for Camels, for Chevrolet, for Four Roses, for Coca-Cola and for the ever-popular "Girls Girls Girls." The subject and the title of the documentary are both "Neon," and it airs at 9:30 on Channels 26 and 32.
As alluring as the title may be, the artsier subtitle amounts to a warning: "An Electric Memoir." Producer Rudy Buttignol and writer John Frizzell seem concerned that a program about the immortal, and widely beloved, neon sign might be too visual, so they attempt to ruin it with a silly, babbling narration spoken by actress Jackie Burroughs, who plays what might be called the Unknown Showgirl. If only she were the Unheard Showgirl. The narration shatters whatever euphoric-nostalgic mood the sight of all those swell old neon signs might have created.
Artists who work in neon are fleetingly visited, in such haunts as Let There Be Neon, a New York gallery, and the Museum of Neon Art. Different gases make different colors, we are offhandedly told, but the specifics of the process are never explained. That's because the narratrix is running on about how neon seems to flow through her veins and how "that buzz pulsing off and on" strikes her as "sexy."
"Neon" is gaseous in all the wrong ways. 'Brothers'
There's something pleasant about the new innocuousness of the TV sitcom. No one could do message sitcoms as well as Norman Lear anyway, and he's at least momentarily out of the business. So soothing tales of midlife crises and parenting are the new norm.
Occasionally the producers of current comedies get the guilts about imagined lack of relevance, however, and so they try something as potentially ambitious as tonight's episode of "Brothers," which can be seen on Showtime, the pay cable network, at 8.
With this episode, "Brothers" becomes the first regularly scheduled series to construct a story around the otherwise inescapable subject of AIDS, most discussed of modern diseases (the matter will also be raised on an NBC movie, "An Early Frost," in November, and on an upcoming episode of the CBS series "Trapper John, M.D."). Unfortunately, the "Brothers" treatment is maudlin and soap-operatic, and the program, however well intended, a mortifying embarrassment.
According to the plot line, a football player named Bubba (played with earnest dignity by James Avery), who previously revealed he was homosexual, returns to his old Philadelphia haunts and seeks quiet seclusion because he has contracted AIDS and doesn't want family or friends to know. In the course of the show, he and his old friends are forced to "deal" with their "feelings" about the disease and the social stigma that has grown up around it, and Bubba is persuaded to go home to the care and comfort of his family. The episode ends with major hugging and weeping by Avery and Robert Walden, one of the brothers of the title.
Statistics about the disease are dutifully rattled off, and there is some loose talk about how the federal government should spend less money making B1 bombers and more on AIDS research. Even though most of the sentiments being conveyed are commendable, however, the situation never seems anything but contrived, and attempts to interrupt the melodrama with bursts of stale humor come across as callous and clumsy. Greg Antonacci wrote and directed the episode, and while his heart may be in the right place, message and medium remain intransigently mismatched.