Justin Willman has the kind of credibility I didn’t know I wanted or needed from a magician. He seems as present with this audiences as he is clever, and his show on Netflix, “Magic for Humans,” is an easy recommendation for anyone who wants to feel good things.
I devoured both seasons when they aired, and I’m ready for more (can we please have more?!), because as corny as it sounds, there is something amazingly human-y that happens when you watch it.
Pulling full-sized, much larger objects out of impossibly smaller and often quite-empty objects and pouring fully-potable liquids (on demand!) out of thin air are genuine shockers. Yet they pale in comparison to Willman’s ability to spontaneously make whole people fully disappear, right before the eyes of others! No stages. No colluding magician’s assistants. No trap doors. It really doesn’t even feel like there are camera tricks (and when there are overt camera tricks, those are also impressive).
Willman is a contemporary artist for our time whose magic utilizes everyday technologies like cell phones and tablets while wholly surpassing presumptions and expectations set by classic magicians who used smoke machines, dark lighting, and steady bass tones in an theater to build audience anticipation. It feels new in a way where you really can’t believe what you’re seeing, which shocks and surprises you into a happy stupor. It’s the kind of magic that “wows” by seemingly breaking laws of physics and all the stable constructs your lived experiences afforded to build your brain. The sense of something so supernatural inherently disrupts implicit understandings of how the world works. Watching Willman perform these tricks in parks and on sidewalks with (convincingly astounded) everyday folks feels, literally, like magic.
And magic feels good, something I didn’t fully appreciate until watching this show.
If part of what connects us as humans across time, space, and cultures is our instinct to smile, laugh, and cry in similar fashions, there must be a similarly universal, human response to witnessing such apparently impossible feats. Surprise. Shock. Confusion. Bewilderment.
“What?! How did he do that?!” you and people on the show exclaim.
And then that sense of utter befuddlement quickly layers within a radiant sense of many other things. Levity. Awe. Amazement. Wonder. Joy.
This is one of the greatest gifts of the show, and now I suspect, of magic, too. It provides a kind of direct experience that is pleasantly visceral and out of control, but in a way that doesn’t elicit fear, terror, or a sense of danger. Watching Willman’s tricks is decidedly not scary, even though it shares strikingly similar happenings to most quintessential horror stories of paranormal activity – objects unexpectedly moving, people inexplicably appearing or disappearing. With the magician nearby, Willman serves as the necessary, reasonable cause of surprising happenings, even if we lack a ready explanation for how they happen. And that, it seems, is all we need to transform something potentially terrifying into something incredibly enjoyable (apparently, a friendly white guy with pretty cringe-worthy dad jokes to whom we can assign responsibility. We could unpack this further, but I won’t).
We simply don’t know what to do when our brains and senses are flat out confused. We can’t process what we saw. So we laugh. And if we dig deep enough into this response, I suspect we’d tap into an experiential bit of wisdom here.
Sure, there are (some) times and (some) places in our human history where (some) supernatural things were/are not celebrated and could get (some) people killed. (Strong emphasis on the ‘some’s’ here since most religions and many cultural traditions are rooted in beliefs about very supernatural things that often get taken for granted as supernatural, or at least not supernatural in a threatening way). But with the context set in the spirit of entertainment and fun as it is in the show, I have to imagine even the biggest skeptics, those who pride themselves on being incapable of (read: unwilling to embody) suspended disbelief, would be unable to hold it in. I bet they’d at least offer up a few affirmative head nods for a trick well-done, and if they let themselves get into it just the slightest bit, they’d probably even emit a squeak or two of glee.
Aside from the amazement you personally feel while watching things like Willman predict outcomes of multi-step processes that pass through chains of unsuspecting strangers, another significant aspect of the show is the pure joy of watching those who experience his tricks first-hand.
Especially the kids.
As demonstrated in the popularity of capturing other scenarios with viral potential – from opening presents to performing in school recitals – there is something truly lovely about seeing unmitigated reactions of children. They wear their feelings on their faces, and they often react to Willman’s magic with a combination of things like, “Whooaaaaa,” and a cool “I see what you did there. Keep going.” But that’s what you’d expect from children. They seem equally thrilled and open to the magic before them.
It’s the reactions of hardened, cynical, slightly closed-off adult-humans with far more uncomfortable dispositions that signal something different for me. In many instances, their responses are more extreme because they start from a place more habituated by unconscious expectations of the non-magical everyday, so when they see things they can’t believe, they really feel it. And it feels special. They have all the same reactions as the children, and then some.
Whether it’s our capacity for empathy or our highly-developed mirror-neurons or just what happens when you see someone with the same tacit sense of “I know better than this” experiencing something quite unbelievable, this show capitalizes on that tendency. You feel all of that happening with and for them in the moment, too.
So if you can, watch this show, but don’t watch it alone.
You can’t fully prepare yourself for the first time you see tricks like Willman’s, but on every level, this show offers up experiences that really are meant to be shared. Witnessing the rawness of how children and adults (and you!) express shock, amazement, and joy – that magical feeling – is heartening in a way that creates an immediate sense of connection with others and your own sense of wonder, and it feels oh so human.
One final note: Once you watch the show, you could do some internet searching or study up on the craft of magic tricks to figure out how it’s all done. You could. But I hope you first spend time reflecting on why you’d want to truncate your own experience of magic. Why not just revel in it for as long as you can until the real world naturally wears it down and sucks you back in to the non-magical everyday? Unfortunately, it won’t take long, so you might as well enjoy the wonder and hold onto it. At least, that’s what I hope you do.