The lack of surprise is no surprise, sadly

I watched the first episode of Mayday last night. It was beautifully filmed, had an impressive cast, and I felt intrigued by the connection between the disappearance of a teenager and the village community she was part of, all set at the time of a May Day parade. Hmm, maybe the chance of something like Wicker Man or Kill List that offers glimpses of a pagan Britain, and sets it off against the modern day. Promising…

But no such luck. I couldn’t stomach more than half of the show because it was clunkily scripted, and populated by actors who were doing their best to outgurn one another in an attempt to suggest that they’re sinister.

It’s not the first time TV has let me down. Utopia started with brilliant promise, but the flourish of its opening episode soon fizzled into yet another conspiracy-by-numbers story, set apart only by its exquisite look.

And yet…

Earlier today I watched seven minutes of clumsily edited footage with tacked-on music, about EDL and BNP activists doing their best to prevent anti-fascists from leafleting. And I was riveted. Check it out here.

How many times a week do you take time a few minutes to enjoy a cat video a friend has put up on Facebook? The antics of a baby? A puppy meeting a dolphin? Filmed on phones more often than not, we’re not watching these because of the actors or the scripts or lavish production values. So what are they doing, and what can we learn from that?

Well, those videos do a great job of making me smile. Of making me feel calm. Or joyful. They take me out of my day for 30 seconds or a couple of minutes, and remind me that complex as life can seem, it’s still possible to enjoy something as simple as snow, or wrapping paper, or the noise of a bee. And if someone else can be filmed enjoying such a thing, then odds are I can find enjoyment in it too.

A long time ago, I knew someone who talked about a toddler whose parents got him to recite Shakespeare. This was apparently mighty amusing to them, and their friends, many of them academics. And I’m sure they could have talked long into the night about the paradox of the entertainment they were enjoying, and all that heady stuff…

Or maybe, it took that kind of packaging for them to enjoy a baby.

I’ve been known to cut out the middleman. To interact directly with toddlers and cut out the bit about filming and YouTube and Facebook. And it’s interesting to see what captures their attention. I figure, if you can engage a baby you’ve got a chance with the adults they grow into.  And the simplest way I’ve found to do that is to wiggle my eyebrows.

Not sophisticated, but hear me out.

Most people can’t wiggle their eyebrows, especially independently, like I can. Which suggests that what’s appealing is the surprise: the difference between what grown-ups do and what this particular grown-up is doing.

And it’s surprise that I rarely experience on TV.

Surprise doesn’t have to be expensive. And it can take many forms. A meteor landing in Russia was one recent example. Look at the footage, and you can literally see it from different angles, as a variety of people going about their daily business are startled by the appearance of a chunk of flaming space rock in the sky.

The surprise isn’t enough for everyone. In this case it’s brought out conspiracy theorists too, who are having their own form of enjoyment from all this which involves feeling superior to those of us who don’t share their beliefs.

Enjoy being surprised, and maybe you’ll do a better job at surprising an audience. That’s my hope anyway. And it involves paying less attention to genre tropes and books on story structure, and more to connecting with that sense of wonder you had as a child when things turned out to be other than the way you conceived them.