Liveblog: ‘Svalbard: Life on the Edge,’ Episode Two (‘Life is Fragile’) from Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg


9:20 p.m.: Since there’s lots of talk about death early in this episode, welcome to the overkill liveblog of Episode Two, since I’ve already published a spoiler-free one during a cast-only preview nine days ago and one with spoilers at a locals-only preview a day later.

This one, from the bar of one of show’s most colorful characters, will hopefully follow a pattern for the rest of the ten-episode series where I blog from various places in Longyearbyen offering public screenings, which will allow comments from other residents (either overheard or voluntarily offered) to be included. The emphasis, rather than a comprehensive plot summary (look to my episode recaps for that), will be on memories I and others have of scenes being filmed, and how “real” the portrayal of Svalbard and the creatures living here is. And, of course, doing this in real-time means the text will be a bit rough until I clean it up the next morning.

Standard disclaimer: The show, titled “Ice Town: Life on the Edge” in most countries, airs in Norway at 10 p.m. on BBC Earth and this liveblog contains spoilers.

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9:25 p.m.: I chose to liveblog this week from the lodge owned by Mary-Ann Dahle because she’s the only main character to appear in the first two episodes (she and four other characters including myself were introduced in Episode One, the other six in Episode Two). I’m sitting 15 meters from the collection of polar bear and other penis bones displayed on a bar counter (and apparently used at times for stir sticks in women’s drinks). Next week I hope to liveblog from Polar Permaculture, the sustainable living entity founded by Benjamin Vidmar, who’s introduced in the episode, because the rumor is he’ll be serving the earthworm cookies featured in this week episode. For the record, I tried them on that particular date as part of a short article for the fishwrapper (and the camera crew was seriously bummed they missed that since they love being able to get two or more characters interacting – sometimes by manipulative methods) and they tasted like average homemade chocolate chip cookies – but too salty.

9:35 p.m.: I haven’t watched TV during the eight years I’ve lived here, with the exception of some exceptional circumstances, so I don’t have much common reference to current reality series or BBC Earth. But the show airing just before this one is another reality show above the Arctic Circle (albeit only about 150 kilometers in places such as the 14-person semi-remote settlement of Wiseman, Alaska…it’s on the main road system, which is more than I can say for my former hometown of Juneau that’s the state capital there) titled “Life Below Zero” (episode title “There Will Be Monsters”). The filiming techniques, musical scoring, etc. are rather similar. Not sure if this is just the channel’s polar region theme night or there’s just so many of these northern exposure shows you’re likely to see them on some channel every night.

9:47 p.m.: The first two people besides me have arrived. There was a lot of social media traffic this week about where people could watch the show (three businesses are hosting screenings this week, including a sports pub that draws large crowds every night anyhow), but about three hours ago somebody posted some kind of code that can be used to add BBC Earth to their cable package. Assuming it’s a standard paid upgrade thing, but it’s one of those things I’ll check out in the morning. That may also explain the lack of folks here, but it’s not like anything in this town is more than 13 minutes away if you have a car or bike.

9:53 p.m.: Mary-Ann just walked in. She, like I, am exhausted and getting tons of calls. Says she getting a lot of people from all over the world wanting to stay at her lodge after seeing Episode One.

10 p.m.: Four more come in as credits are rolling. Verified that they’re using the same scenes and music for the credits as Episode One. I didn’t think much of it the first couple of times since there’s tons of shows and documentaries with the “usual” scenics of Arctic glaciers, explorers, the Northern Lights, etc., all set to dense contempo synth music. But for whatever reason, this one has grown on me a little if only, like jazz, certain bits don’t fall where you expect. The last sequences, for instance, feature increasingly dark skyscapes with increasingly intense Northern Lights…a classic build up to whatever the title screen is. In this case, there a two-second interlude of a Burns-effect still of the town in broad daylight before the expected synth hit and title. Watching it several times in slo-mo I kept thinking, “OK, who stuck that in there and why?” Like a totally off-scale transtion note to snap you out of complacency during an otherwise smooth riff, it works (yeah, I miss the days when jazz was my whole life a little at times).

10:04 p.m.: BTW, my (probably not) final thoughts on the show’s title: The original title was “Ice People: Life on the Edge'” supposedly the dominant favorite in focus groups. I wrote I was rather iffy about that, primarily because the fishwrapper would get buried beneath every reference to the show on Google for all time. Title got changed in part due to that (note to the lawyers…my ex-wife I debated who came up with the name first when we registered the domain name nearly 20 years ago and she was totally OK with your using it because she’s like that). In retrospect…maybe I was right, maybe not. That said, my personal preference of the titles in play is the “Svalbard: Life on the Edge” title used in Norway compared to “Ice Town” or “Ice People.” Check this page again in 24 hours for the best title I can think of that ditches that latter bit (a title like “Life Below Zero” catches my attention and tells me something, whereas the titles on this series are vague). The word is way overused as marketing cliché, but “northernmost” is what I keep trying to build off of. That or one perfect invented word (i.e. “Unforgiven“).

10:07 p.m.: Crud, missed much of the opening sequence with taxi driver Wiggo to take the photo above and upload it. Which gives you a chance to place your bets: I noticed at the end of Episode One the license plate number of my car seemed to be blurred out (the crew goes to great lengths to keep major brand names out of shots -while, while making certain things a bit false, I respect immensely more than product placement). Anyhow, even odds on whether I get another chance (and if I remember) to look at his taxi plates and confirm my hunch.

10:10 p.m.: Crowd’s watching, not talking as the early part deals with Chris and his avalanche studies and Leif at the All Saint’s Day Mass (the somber preludes to why “life is fragile” here, as Leif puts it). One question about when a certain scene happened.

10:11 p.m: Benjamin’s Polar Permaculture intro gets the first bit of people who’ve heard about his project and are curious about it.

10:13 p.m: Shocker: the Norwegian subtitles are rather simplfied translations of what guys like Benjamin – talks rather quickly and enthusastically – are saying. Given hiw utterly crappy my “cod Norwegian” is (the one true laugh the local crowd had for me during the advance screening of Episode One since most of them by now have heard my horribly accented “kan vi snakke i engelsk” schtick.

10:14 p.m.: Realizing this is one of many places we enter a time warp…the show blows past the last days of daylight into the dark season during the first 14 minutes, but that serves as transition to the other Ben who’s a Green Dog musher. Except there’s a lot of snow (very good conditions he notes), which means this scene is happening in January or later. And, of course, the show ends on Dec. 18, the day before the avalanche. The producers say the show isn’t meant to be chronological, but then they used the chronology explaination for making Episode Three the “avalanche episode” – obviously the most dramatic and risky of the series.

10:17 p.m.: First bit of real crowd reaction as a trio of women right in from of me uttery some surprised profanity when Ben’s dogsledding expedition suffers a sudden crash and broken sled. As I noted in my recap liveblog a week ago, this definitely captured the fear of a novice musher out of his element (um, no…of course that not a personal reference to similar ineptitude my first time out). Take the 30 seconds of that scene and a bunch of other common mishaps during everything from glacier walks to rafts near glaciers and you’d have a great Svalbard-style  “scared straight” video for tourists.

10:21 p.m.: One more time warp note: There was a lot of jumping around in Episode One, but that was presented as an overview of Svalbard rather than featuring the onset of winter, so the time travel was expected. Here it’s a bit like Foritude, which starts the series coming out of the Dark Season (February, we presume) and somehow celebrate Christmas in full daylight several weeks later.

10:24 p.m.: Mary-Ann’s one scene in this episode is up as she picks up that massive Christms tree. The women in front of me look at her and laugh as she tells the camera “maybe I’m a bit crazy” to buy a 10,000-kroner Christmas tree. The women agree and the rest of the crowd joins in the laughter.

10:27 p.m.: Another time-warp moment and a possible bit of “scripting” as Chris teaches an outdoor avalanche rescue class. Again, the amount of snow suggests this took place in 2016, but he talks about a person killed in an avalanche “earlier this in year in January” (meaning 2015). Was he told not to say “last year” to preseve the timeline? I got similar requests many times, hence the suspicion A very minor, arguably insignificant and harmless thing, except it serves as an example of such things in more substantial situations.

10:33 p.m.: And another suspected example as Wiggo and Claudia do their classic Christmas decorations scene, only to be phone call and have him wander out to do a Northern Lights taxi tour. Given the fact only three tourists were on the bus (sorry, hard to image nobody in a large hotel dining room full of guests would go even if it was dinnertime) and there were no lights to be seen due to clouds, did the crew ask Wiggo to do this just to get the footage even though the odds of seeing anything were poor? May be a totally baseless accusation in this case – best gossip I have is there was good auroal activity… behind the clouds – but, again, this is based on knowledge of when such things happened. Will fix this and admit being totally wrong if that’s the case.

10:40 p.m.: Crowd’s been almost entirely quiet since Mary-Ann’s scene. Surprised the biggest laugh lines at the local screenings with Ben’s worm cookies and Wiggo’s Christmas misadventure basically got a ripple from these folks.

10:43: I noted the theme soundtrack is the same, but they are composing new music for new characters/scenes/episodes. The compositions are actually decent matches, even if the dark and ominous stuff is obviously the most overdramatic. Some locals last week said they’d prefer Wiggo and Claudia go at it with goofy background music, but I didn’t even notice it because the characters soaked up all my attention.

10:47 p.m.: And that’s a wrap, with the rapid flash of avalanche shots that freaked a few locals out at the screening. One of the women in front says the show was much more serious than she expected and there’s some agreement the music exxagerates the mood of what they saw in the characters.

But the trio tells Mary-Ann she was awesome. And everyone in the room looks like they’ll be drinking with her long after I’ve departed.

Post-mortum thoughts (2:10 a.m. Tuesday): After seeing preview screenings of both episodes roughly a week ago and watching Episode One several times after it aired, I stated Episode Two was far superior because there was less of a “Welcome to Svalbard” (the debut title) thing and as a result there was time to follow a few storylines involving the characters. But after seeing the reactions of an admittedly small group of tourists I’m thinking the gap is much narrower from an outsider’s standpoint. Episode One, after all, emphasizes the major ways Svalbard is unlike anywhere else on Earth (far more of interest to outsiders), while the minor storylines of folks in Episode Two probably don’t stand out nearly as much if they watch a lot of shows like the one I saw just before this that I mentioned at the beginning. Still, that doesn’t change my major overall impression: the show may have put itself in a box by featuring the avalanche so soon. Done right, it should be a standout episode no matter how many of these shows you watch (and would erase locals’ fears of a tragedy being overly exploited for viewership) and will likely be a legitimate news event in Norway. But they won’t be able to sustain that climatic energy for the next seven shows (and, yes, I’m saying my two hours being tosssed out of Gamle Sykehuset and the chaos that followed isn’t even close; although I obviously can’t speak for other characters’ “moments” I’m unaware of). I have no doubt locals will find it fun and intriguing to see how their neighbors are portrayed, but the Arctic is such a quirky and diverse place I’m not show how this show lures outsiders who don’t keep their TVs on BBC Earth already.

That said, I’ve learned a lot from them during the year (using that to film my own documentary) and they have overcome some of my doubts so far. Maybe they can pull a rabbit put out of their hat with Episode Four and beyond.