Jem episode “That Old Houdini Magic” shines light on fear of death, elder fraud

2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of Jem, a television show my nearly 6-year-old daughter watches on Netflix every morning. A live action movie is slated for release in October because nostalgia. Along with my daughter, I have re-watched nearly every episode a handful of times—I used to watch it when I was a kid too—and I have been fascinated by how adult the story lines are (particularly in comparison to many of the cartoons she watches that are produced today—especially her other favorite cartoon Jake and the Neverland Pirates).

Yesterday she re-watched That Old Houdini Magic, an episode in which the takeaway is that people should not allow their fear of death to render themselves gullible. An actual line uttered by a character in this episode is: “Oh, my, what a fool I’ve been. I was so afraid of dying, I let myself be taken in by a charlatan. From now on, I’m going to live each day to the fullest and not be afraid of what tomorrow might bring.” Let’s back up.

In the episode, Jem and the Holograms collaborate with Astral, a young magician who was trained by a former student of Houdini, and Ms. Farnsworth, an aging philanthropist, to throw a charity fundraiser for the children’s hospital.


In a scene that has nothing to do with the plot, Kimber explains to her young friend that “those kind of bracelets can be trouble.”

Riot, the sexually predatory frontman of The Stingers, introduces himself to Mrs. Farnsworth:

“You’ve undoubtedly heard of me. I’m the leader of The Singers, probably the greatest rock band of the 20th century.”

After making an offer to headline the show, he is rebuffed by Farnsworth, who reiterates that Jem and the Holograms will be headlining instead. Riot is stunned. Minx, the Stingers’ synthesizer player, furiously makes her way toward Farnsworth, insisting the woman will not get away with what she’s done. Riot stops her, and guitarist Rapture—a notorious con artist—suggests she has a different plan.

Meanwhile, in a scene that only serves future plot developments, Mrs. Farnsworth explains to a young girl:

“A psychic once told me I would never die as long as my watch kept running, so to be safe I wear as many watches as I can.”


Riot creepily kisses Farnsworth's hand, reveals her metaphysical watch fetish

Riot creepily kisses Farnsworth’s hand, reveals her metaphysical watch fetish

Rapture pretends that she has been possessed by Houdini and that the legendary illusionist wants for Farnsworth to buy his host body new clothes and to donate the rest of her money to a front foundation. Rapture “reveals” to Farnsworth that “It has suddenly come to me why you wear so many watches. You are afraid time will stop for you.” Farnsworth, the most gullible millionaire from the 1980s, buys for Rapture some gowns and puts the Stingers on the bill.

Riot, a literalist who would make Drax the Destroyer strike as Shakespearean,  expresses his satisfaction with the con by saying that “Weak willed people are so gullible.” The Stingers break out into a song that underscores their love for screwing over said weak willed people:

“Manipulation, is the name of the game. Manipulation makes all other games look tame. The goal is control of your soul! We’re playing mind games, stretching your mind till it snaps.”


The Stingers, literalists to the core, illustrate exactly how they’re playing Farnsworth. (LIKE A PUPPET. GET IT?)

Astral, who—again—was taught by a former student of Houdini, is not psyched by any of these developments and challenges Rapture to a magic dual at the charity event. Rapture exposes herself as a fraud when one of her illusions goes wrong and she nearly drowns in a chamber, but not before Jem and The Stingers can team up on this song:

The Stingers: “Believe in me; you can see with your own eyes all the many wonders I can do. Believe in me; I’m a wizard in disguise. Why would I want to lie to you?”

Jem: “Don’t believe everything you see; there’s more than meets the eye, Don’t believe in a fantasy; the truth is underneath the lie.”

Rapture is forced to admit her con. Despite her halfway successful attempt to steal millions from a seemingly well-respected philanthropist, no legal action is implied—presumably because she is white and famous. Mrs. Farnsworth, feeling foolish, reveals the takeaway from the ordeal:

“I was so afraid of dying, I let myself be taken in by a charlatan. From now on, I’m going to live each day to the fullest and not be afraid of what tomorrow might bring.”

Meanwhile, on Jake and the Neverland Pirates: a frightened Cubby realizes that teamwork can get him through trying situations, Izzy reminds us that Pixie dust is for use only in emergencies, and Jake insists his team be nice to the old man who insists time and again upon stealing from children. Or for a different take, I prefer Keith Phipps’ interpretation of the Disney cartoon: “Able-bodied youngsters harass a trauma-stricken middle-aged amputee, on the next JAKE AND THE NEVERLAND PIRATES.”

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.