Norwegian HBO series dress “otherness” in new, old clothes


Photo: Ola Vatn / NTB scanpix
The stars of the HBO series “Beforeigners” (L-R): Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Krista Kosonen, Stig Henrik Hoff, and Ylva Thedin Bjørkaas.

The Norwegian American

The recent Norwegian TV series, Beforeigners, represents a breakthrough for Norwegian TV. Long overshadowed by its more impressive siblings in Sweden and Denmark, the Norwegians have struggled to be taken quite as seriously on the international stage. Its media productions have been somewhat of an insider secret, for Norwegian eyes only, however clever they might be.

In the age of streaming, however, Norwegian TV has seen rapid growth in production, quality, and, consequently, audience. With shows like Lilyhammer and then Norsemen (the English-language version of Norway’s Vikingane), Occupied (Okkupert), Nobel, Ragnarok, and Bloodride, the Norwegians have slowly built a reputation for watchable, clever TV, mostly on Netflix.

Although Netflix has emerged as a major media player, it’s still comparatively unimpressive to end up there, among the endless selection of fluff and flatbrød that makes up its vast catalog. Beforeigners reflects a more prestigious breakthrough, landing in the trophy-rich HBO universe. It is the first Norwegian-language show to be picked up by the media behemoth.

The concept of Beforeigners is its best quality, with the wordplay that pervades the show, playing well in both Norwegian and English. The working title of the show in Norway was Fremvandrerne, punning on inn- and utvandrer, the words for immigrant and emigrant, by changing the prefix to frem-, for forward-migrant.

The premise of the action is the inexplicable arrival of people in the waters of the Oslofjord in a near-future Oslo. Before long, the authorities discover that these arrivals are not from an elsewhere, but an elsewhen. Moreover, they’re arriving in Oslo from three specific periods in history: the Stone Age, the Viking Age, and the Victorian Age (the phenomenon, in the show, turns out to be global—perhaps a forward-looking marketing maneuver, in hopes of selling the idea to international showrunners, à la the wildly successful Skam).

However mysterious the reason or mode of their arrival, the current citizens must confront the fact of their presence on their shores. The brilliance of the concept lies in the question that the show asks, in its relatively obvious mirroring of the global refugee crisis: How might we deal with foreigners if they were more obviously versions of ourselves?

Indeed, the eponymous “beforeigners”—also called “time-igrants” or tidsvandrer in Norwegian—bring their own language, social, cultural, and religious mores, quite out of sync with contemporary values, much less contemporary hygiene.

The first episodes confront the city’s efforts to assimilate or make space for the sometimes drastic “otherness” of the newcomers. As in real life, some characters are apt to adapt to the new conditions, some refuse, and most live somewhere in between.

One can imagine (and the show certainly does) the radical differences in culinary habits of the migrants. The “paleo diet” might have seemed trendy—until a real Stone Ager arrives to show us how it’s really done. The same is true of the Viking and Victorian arrivals: Viking reenactments may be fun, but how convenient that they don’t actually involve the violence and ritual sacrifice of the Vikings themselves. Likewise, the sartorial vibe of the late 1800s has its particular flair, but the rigid patriarchal values of those who wear the clothes is, well, not exactly stylish. The show also, of course, provides images of the benefits of a multicultural society: a Viking bar, for example, takes on a deeper entertainment value when it’s run by actual Vikings.

As the show begins, the police force in Oslo has just recruited its first officer with a time-igrant background: a Viking woman named Alfhildr Enginnsdottir, played by Finnish actor Krista Kosonen, whose accent in Norwegian nicely befits a native speaker of norrønt, Old Norse dialect (not that we’d actually know).

The celebration of this milestone in multiculturalism (or, as the show has it, multi-temporalism) mimics such a situation in real life, where an institution, quick to congratulate itself on a diversity hire, isn’t exactly effective in truly welcoming difference into its ranks. As the show develops, the mixed reception of Enginnsdottir’s presence—and her unconventional methods—among the members of the police force reflects the casual ethnocentrism that often pervades our own social institutions. Her only real defender is her partner on the force, detective Lars Haaland (played by Nicolai Cleve Broch), a respected officer who also happens to be addicted to “time drops,” a medicine used to help new arrivals adjust after the shock of time-igration.

Beforeigners is adept in its depictions of a society trying to respond to foreigners who bring their complex predispositions and prejudices into a society that sees itself as long established and stable. But in framing them as time-igrants from a prior age, the question of otherness is enriched by forcing the characters (and, by extension, the viewers) to confront their own preconceptions of self and other.

Humans often selectively celebrate the historical versions of their own cultural past, even framing the uglier parts as stories of overcoming. Americans, for example, easily celebrate the Founding Fathers, the victory and national unity of World War II, the successes of the Civil Rights movement, etc., but we often think of the Civil War or the history of slavery as an exception, something we overcame in our ongoing march toward a more perfect union rather than a deep inconsistency in our own sense of self. The show does, at times, ask the deeper-lying question: To what degree do those historical selves still live within us? And can “we” become “them,” given the right circumstances?

Beforeigners turns this habit of self-celebration on its head by imagining what an encounter with historical versions of our own cultural identities might have in common with real-life encounters with the cultural identities of others. Alas, after the first few episodes, the show’s focus drifts to the trans-temporal murder mystery that Haaland and Enginnsdottir are working on, relegating the issues of cultural encounter to the backdrop. Still, the backdrop is alive and well, and Beforeigners offers plenty to think about. With a cliffhanger ending that all but promises a second season, it may be a good series for this summer as likely travel restrictions keep us closer to home.

Beforeigners is available for streaming by subscription on HBO Now and HBO Go.

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Andy Meyer

Andy Meyer is a literature and language teacher with over 15 years of experience in colleges, universities, and independent high schools. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington and teaches Norwegian there. In 2015-2016, he was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway.