For the last two months, Criss Angel has taken us on the journey of the year with his Spike TV series, Criss Angel BeLIEve. He's given us an inside look at not only how magic is performed, but how demanding and exhilarating it is to be a professional magician. How do you quantify a project that's made history, blown minds, and even genuinely moved us, too? As he was preparing tomorrow night's last episode of the season, "Ship Appearance," Criss sat down with BFTV to look back on his return to television.
When we first talked to him before BeLIEve premiered, he spoke about doing something different from his first TV venture, A&E's Criss Angel Mindfreak, and from anything else that had been seen before. Now that everything's said and done, does he feel like he accomplished what he set out to do?
"Without a doubt. Absolutely," he told us, pointing toward the show's record-breaking premiere, a clip from the first episode that has well over fifteen million views on YouTube in just under eight weeks, and an international deal that will bring the show to a hundred and three countries. "A hundred and three countries is more than Mindfreak used to play in," he continued. "And I'm really proud of what we've done. I think we've delivered a show that's definitely different than anything that's ever been put on television in regards to magic, including my own work."
We're inclined to agree with him. Unlike any other magic project in any medium, not just television, BeLIEve hasn't only delivered impressive illusions; it's an up close and personal look at the reality of magic. It's not only what happens, but how it happens, who makes it happen, and what it takes for the magician. Forget those Magic's Biggest Secrets specials; this is the most revealing look into magic that you've ever seen.
That's not to say the demonstrations weren't jaw-dropping, because they were. We were privy to Criss succeeding at a demonstration that killed another magician in 'Cement Grave,' watched him perform a controversial act in the Halloween special 'Raise The Dead,' and were shocked when the cameras caught him nearly being seriously wounded in 'Lord of Illusions.' These were not simple tricks; in fact, several episodes weren't tricks at all, but legitimate challenges. This was pushing things to their absolute limit.
So even though Criss had been through the process of television before with Mindfreak, that didn't necessarily prepare him for BeLIEve. "It was a lot more difficult to do than I ever dreamt. And obviously with my shoulder surgery, that was not part of the plan," he commented, referring to the injury he aggravated while performing his Times Square double straightjacket escape. "At the end of the day, I'm very happy with the outcome and with what we accomplished."
"I think we've accomplished everything we set out to do, and I think we still have some room to grow and figure out how to tweak things and do things that I have ideas for," he continued. "I think if you look at the 'Rips Bodies Apart' [video], wand how that one clip just grew at a rate that the world of magic has neve rseen in its history on the internet, that is just an unbelievable thing. To see a clip have 15 million viewers in a matter of a couple of months is just mindblowing.
"If you look at episodes like the straightjacket [escape], I'm really proud of that show. It gives people the opportunity to see where I started and how difficult these things I do are," Criss told us. "Then [the] elephant vanish showed the viewers that this didn't just happen to me overnight; this is something I've been working on over decades."
What's the most important thing that audiences should've learned from BeLIEve? "Is that illusion by definition is not real. It's not real," he explained. "When people say it's fake, yes, of course it's fake. It's not supposed to be real."
Perhaps what confuses some people is that Criss doesn't perform just illusions, but demonstrations that are devoid of any such deception, many of which we've gotten to see this season. "What I do as an artist is I blur the line," he continued. "Hanging upside down in a straightjacket with a fifty-pound weight is no illusion. It's not fake whatsoever. It's completely and utterly real. There's no trick to it."
We got a major shock earlier this season with 'Lord of Illusions,' where just moments after Criss walked away from the demonstration, a sword that would've impaled him released on its own. "Movie magic can be very dangerous, but bringing it to life in a real world setting is even more exponentially dangerous," he reflected. "When I did that, it was crazy. I was twenty seconds, fifteen seconds away from being literally impaled.
"Some of it came easier than others," he said. "I have to be thankful that the worst thing that happened to me from the entire season is that I have to have shoulder surgery because of the straightjacket in Times Square. The fact that I lived through [the season] and didn't get permanently maimed, it's really remarkable. I would've liked to not have to go through surgery, but it is something that's part and parcel."
Even with all the shocks and surprises that made it on the air, we still didn't see everything. "We have a lot of stuff. I have another probably fifteen, twenty different demonstrations that I shot that I didn't have room for," Criss revealed.
Did he feel like he received the reaction from audiences that he wanted with this series? "The response from the public has been amazing," he said. "People that were fans of Mindfreak watched it, and I think they've seen a transformation and a growth. You build new fans, and you have your old fans."
Speaking of those existing fans, they deserve some recognition here, too. "The Loyals are really, I'm so blessed to have this group of people that support my art, because they're from all over the world, all different walks of life, all different backgrounds and they're just wonderful," he continued. "It's good to be out there producing some positivity and strength within each other and looking at each other as somebody that is an asset and somebody that we want to build up. I love the fact that Loyals are, globally, typically pretty positive and pretty supportive.
"I think what you put out there in the world is what you receive. If you put positive things out there and you try to be positive and put out a good message, a message of hope and strength and the power to believe, then that's what follows you," he continued. "I always try to put something out there that's positive. I'm not special, I'm not different, I'm just like everybody out there. I try to lead by example."
With BeLIEve, Criss is certainly setting a remarkable example not just for magicians, but really for anyone who decides to produce a reality television show. He's put together a program that has blended the entertainment value of illusions with the informative aspect of allowing us to see behind the scenes. It's a series that has brought truly ambitious moments to television without losing any of their impact in translation.
And most importantly, it has a purpose. It's not just a vanity project for Criss to show off; it's opening up the world of magic. Why do such a thing? Maybe because we haven't quite grasped just how much it requires to create these fantastic things that seem so easy.
"People that have come before me have done one television special a year or every few years. To sit here and do a television series of ten, eleven hours, a complete season, that's a wealth of material," Criss explained. "For me, that was a hundred and eighteen demonstrations. That is a tremendous order.
"To take that and couple that with ten [live] shows a week, that is a very difficult lifestyle. Physically, mentally, emotionally. It's probably why, if you look at any magician in the history of the art, no one has ever done that. Sometimes it takes some magicians three or four years to come up with ninety minutes of material." Or, if you're doing the math, two episodes of BeLIEve.
"I really attribute the ability to do what no one's really done to my incredible team," he told us. "My team is really the nexus between thinking about something and then actually doing it."
It's as much about the journey as it is the destination. By creating BeLIEve, Criss has accomplished a variety of things, whether it's reintroducing magic to a weekly audience, or educating that audience on the fact that modern magic is a lot more serious than we tend to think. As we reach this last hour of the season, he's invested countless hours and who knows how much in resources, and he's injured himself. So where's the payoff for all the sacrifice? Is it in the ratings? The commercial success? Not even close.
As always, it comes down to a love of the art, a passion that through this show, he's been able to impart to all of us.
"It is insanely stressful, challenging, demanding. This has been the most demanding, challenging project of my career," Criss reflected. "But I also remind myself that no one's making me do this. I chose this path. I'm blessed to have this opportunity. I think back to the times where I was just dreaming about this and now I have the opportunity. How could I complain?"
(c)2013 Brittany Frederick. Appears at Starpulse with permission.