Show far, show good: Locals praise first two episodes of BBC ‘docu-soap,’ worry about the next showing avalanche

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Many people said it was better than they expected. Nobody hated it – although some found the ending of Episode Two unsettling. And there is considerable anxiety about what the world will see in Episode Three.

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Several hundred Longyearbyen residents filled the seats at Kulturhuset on Sunday for advance screenings of the first two episodes of “Svalbard: Life on the Edge,” a new reality TV series on BBC Earth that follows the lives of 11 local residents for seven months during the past year. The first episode of the series, which is titled “Ice Town: Life on the Edge” outside Norway, aired in about 70 countries Sunday and Monday.

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Christine Ireland, one of the “characters” of “Svalbard: Life on the Edge,” practices target shooting during the first episode of the reality TV series. Screenshot via BBC Earth.

The show was promoted as a “docu-soap” featuring eccentric characters in a “real-life Fortitude.” Plenty of locals and many of the people filmed expressed concerns the series would overdramatize the elements of everyday life here – and while those at the preview screenings said that did happen at times, praise for the first two episodes was virtually unanimous.

“I thought it was great,” said Jon-Kristian Bø, who has lived in Longyearbyen for six years, after the first screening. “Good P.R. I’m looking forward to seeing the next results.”

He and many others attending the first screening at 3 p.m. – which introduced five of the characters – were intrigued enough to return at 9:30 p.m. to see the remaining characters introduced in Episode Two. Viewers who attended both previews generally said they preferred the second because the characters were more humorous and more could be shown about them because the episode didn’t have to spend time explaining the basics of Svalbard.

Still, some viewers said the characters they saw on screen sometimes didn’t quite match the people they know in real life. Bananen Franz, an Arctic technology student at The University Centre in Svalbard, said the portrayal of UNIS Professor Chris Borstad as he analyzed the risk of avalanches of snowy hillsides was rather somber.

“I know him quite well,” Franz said, “He’s not as dramatic as they pictured him.”
Rimante Hegland, who’s lived in Long-yearbyen for eight years, said viewers seeing the town for the first time on the show might not get that’s it’s basically an ordinary small community with normal people.

“Great pictures, great views,” she said. “It’s a bit dramatized. Not everyone eats reindeer and whale.”

A couple from from Australia said they don’t normally watch reality shows – or much TV – but they watched the first episode before arriving in Svalbard for a cruise. They said they felt it offered a better overview of the archipelago than typical documentaries aimed at tourists.

“It was far more interesting than a tourism show because it showed the people,” said Annette Maynard, a Canberra resident. “From a tourist perspective you felt the heart of the place here. You see the people and what they’re doing there.”

Her husband, Ian, said the show “gave us a much better perspective of the town and what the island has to offer.”

Some residents expressed frustrations during during the filming of the series because they felt the camera crews were too intrusive and/or there was no way to avoid unwanted filming at public events. But after watching the advance screenings, the skeptics offered positive comments about the results if not the process.

“They followed me as a firefighter at the hospital,” said Andreas Eriksson, a Longyearbyen resident for ten years. “I didn’t enjoy having a camera in my face.”

But he said members of the filming crew “were really polite” when he told them he didn’t want to be filmed and he was impressed by the first episodes.

The last minute of the second episode, showing the massive snow and wind storm on Dec. 18, followed by a sudden black screen and ominous thump, then a flash of quick images and film showing the devastation of the avalanche that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people spooked and worried some locals.

“I am quite anxious about that,” said Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, one of the characters introduced in Episode Two, who is likely get a significant amount of time in Episode Three as one of the primary counselors for victims and a close friend of one of the people killed.” It is important they handle what happened with respect. I think that will be the most important episode of the series.”

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