Not enough people are talking about The Happenings on digital channel Watch, which scored a big hit with Dynamo: Magician Impossible a few years ago. That's a shame, as this is one of the most fun shows I've seen in months. It's not without some flaws (which we'll get to in a moment), but if you like top-class street magic and fooling gullible members of the public... The Happenings should be seen immediately.
The format of the show is simple: Scottish magicians Barry Jones and Stuart MacLeod attempt to convince a town that a supernatural event (or "happening") is taking place on their doorstep. They do this by executing largely the same plan each week: perform a magic trick intended to "go viral" on YouTube (like this supermarket poltergeist), pretend to be documenting the weirdness while actually performing additional tricks to convince townsfolk something strange is happening, ask a local celebrity to help spread the word on TV and radio, then guide some of the more naive people through a "storyline" leading to a climactic happening.
One of the issues I have with the show is that Barry and Stuart's tactics are so inflexible, and largely don't seem all that effective. There are plenty of occasions when Barry or Stuart approach people in the street and ask them about recent local weirdness (crop circles, a poltergeist, psychics, a vampire), only to be met with blank stares. It seems that creating a buzz in a community requires more time and effort than The Happenings seems to allow for.
Regardless, as an unusual way to showcase excellent magic, The Happenings works extremely well. Barry and Stuart are talented illusionists, and it's fun seeing their repertoire of tricks used as part of a supernatural storyline. The highlights of each episode tends to be whenever reactions from the public are at their most honest, as it can be a fascinating insight into what people would do when faced with "proof" of the paranormal. I especially liked the reaction of one poor guy whose foot was suddenly 'sucked into the ground' when a "special gas" was sprayed onto it, or when a man was convinced an unconscious "shape-shifter" had just transformed into his best-friend. Or how about when a group of people interested in aliens witnessed their friend suddenly get "tractor beamed" high into the air? Or when a man in a bar discovered that a ferret had magically appeared in his trousers? (Don't ask.)
As much as I've enjoyed The Happenings, it does feel like it's not yet operating at optimum level. There are times when certain scenarios feel quite false, when people are asked to do seemingly bizarre things and just go along with it. Doesn't anybody ever feel suspicious about the fact all this craziness starts happening the moment two pallid Scotsmen turn up in town? (Certainly for the American-set pranks, you'd think there would be more incredulity.) Or maybe none of that's shown, so you just get to see the most gullible people taken for a ride. The calibre of "celebrity helpers" (a largely redundant role anyway) also leaves a lot to be desired. Brooke Hogan, daughter of wrestler Hulk Hogan? Who makes that booking?
The show comes "from the makers of Derren Brown" (which makes it sound like even he isn't a real person), and it covers similar territory to a few of Brown's Channel 4 specials. I think the key difference is that Brown's work feels like more money and time's been spent getting it right, and he places more emphasis on taking people on a journey of self-discovery. The Happenings has less lofty ambitions, really. It just wants to mix candid camera-style pranks with street magic, under the umbrella of an ongoing paranormal tale. On that level, it works as well as can be expected in terms of tricking people and telling a silly "story"... but as an imaginative way to stage some astonishing trickery, it's a real treat.