Dangerman: The Incredible Mr. Goodwin

Dangerman: The Incredible Mr. Goodwin

Dangerman: The Incredible Mr. Goodwin debuts tonight at 10 p.m. on BBC America

“That was a movie. We just saw a movie!” So says one of the onscreen participants of Dangerman: The Incredible Mr. Goodwin. That’s a ringing endorsement, although not an accurate description. What actually unfolds each week on this show is a modern-day homage to the vaudeville tradition, a tradition in which star Jonathan Goodwin is well-versed. Those looking to see the “tricks” in each one of his pieces will find this show an exercise in well-edited subterfuge. But for those that give over to Goodwin’s theatricality (and undeniable skill in many vaudeville traditions), there’s an enjoyable show that emphasizes preparation as much as execution.

Each of the episodes provided for review follows a similar format: Goodwin creates scenarios for an in-show audience, often explaining the premises past the point at which these unwitting observers/assistants/enablers have the opportunity to say “no” to their part in the proceedings. Not everything takes the form of large, elaborate setpieces. Just as many include scenarios involving apartments, pubs, and other mundane locations that serve as backdrop for Goodwin’s exhibitions. But all involve some level of danger that goes above and beyond what any normal (read: sane) person would willingly subject oneself to. As such, many participants often look as if they have unwittingly agreed to be part of a snuff film, simultaneously thrilled but also terrified as Goodwin unveils layer after layer of the exhibition. In many cases, Goodwin is the one in imminent danger, whether suspended from a helicopter, hanging from a gondola, or buried alive. Other times, the volunteers have to rely on Goodwin’s skill in order to leave the show still in one piece. In both cases, gradually revealing the nature of the act is part of the fun.

The more cynical viewer can (and probably should) doubt the veracity of each segment, especially given its pre-produced nature. The onscreen observers not only provide a proxy for the audience, but also help sell the illusion that what we see at home resembles what actually unfolded on location. Atop that, Dangerman goes to great lengths to help sell the continuity of the trick in order to further sell the wonder of Goodwin’s feats. In one segment, a single camera mounted on a circular track moves around Goodwin as he attempts to break free from a pair of handcuffs while a volunteer slaps him in the face. What the volunteer doesn’t know is that Goodwin also has a live scorpion in his mouth, which will sting him should he overreact to the slaps. All of this sounds ridiculous on paper, but is undeniably riveting television as the camera swirls mercilessly around the proceedings.

One of the show’s greatest strengths is its willingness to show Goodwin’s professional shortcomings. Not every stunt is successfully executed, which gives an edge to each endeavor. To be sure, the success rate is much higher than the failure rate. But failure exists in Dangerman, which frankly shocked the hell out of me the first time it happened. Moreover, failure doesn’t simply wound Goodwin’s pride, but actually risks his life and hampers later attempts at similar stunts. It’s not like anyone watching this show is rooting for any harm to come to Goodwin. The show often deploys montages featuring the rigorous, customized workouts that go into preparing for each stunt. That’s smart, since it highlights the effort that goes into making things seem effortless. But that sometimes fastidious preparation still cannot prevent paramedics from descending on the scene. That might be too much reality for reality TV for some. But it’s a welcome tonic when compared to shows like this that make dangerous lifestyles such as Goodwin’s seem not only easy, but romantic for those watching at home.

If there’s a glaring flaw in Dangerman, it’s in not fully exploring how this darker side of Goodwin’s daredevil nature conflicts with his domestic life. Sprinkled throughout each episode are talking heads with his wife, parents, and other family members. That Goodwin has a wife and an infant daughter seems vitally important, especially considering the constant brushes with death that his work entails. (Forget helicopter stunts: a “simple” knife-throwing trick is rife with peril.) Dangerman has no obligation to address the dichotomy between “family man” and “daredevil,” but its insertion of his wife into the show opens up discussions that the program doesn’t seem prepared to address. That’s unfortunate, because there appears to be as much drama stemming from Goodwin’s domestic/professional life as any elaborate exhibition.

Still, for many, that omission won’t matter at all, since this is a show above all about the various examples of escapology, feats of strength, and other vaudeville acts in which Goodwin is extremely skilled. In that field, the show is an unqualified success, particularly for those who enter this show the way they would enter the world of carnivals. There are times to overanalyze details and figure out the “tricks” at play. There are also times to simply marvel at the skill of the performer. Dangerman fits into the latter category, offering up an interesting variation in two well-worn fields: vaudeville and reality television. For those willing to peek behind the curtain, there’s certainly a lot to behold.

Stray observations:

  • Dangerman probably wouldn’t have worked a few years ago, not because of Goodwin’s skill but because of the technology available to capture these performances. While not a movie, it’s often very cinematic, and micro-cameras are able to put the audience into the world of the stunts with great effectiveness.
  • You know shit’s getting real on this show when it breaks out the dubstep background music. That takes the scorpion stunt (dubbed “Handcuff Hell”), among others, to the next level.
  • One girl lets Goodwin throw knives at her because she thinks he’s cute. I can’t wait to read her OKCupid profile.
  • If you’re claustrophobic, this is probably not the show for you. I found myself sympathetically short of breath during several stunts, and I don’t even have that intense of a phobia.  
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