Rant: Ranking the ‘characters’ of ‘Svalbard: Life on the Edge’ from least to most interesting (WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS)


The verdict from the cast seems near-unanimous: the character they like least is themselves.

The first two episodes of the docu-soap “Svalbard: Live on the Edge” served to introduce the 11 “characters” that were followed around by camera crews for much of the past year. Some received dominent amounts of screen time, others made scant appearances with large gaps between them. And in talking to numerous locals following advance screenings of the episodes Sunday at Kulturhuset, there were a few clear top favorites.

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But since it’s doubtful many people will publically declare which characters they like least, that’s where I come in since it’s not like I have any esteem to lose. So here’s my Very Risky ranking of the characters, starting with the least interesting and ending with the most. Of course, in a Very Big Disclaimer, this obviously is how the show presents the characters, not necessarily a judgement of the people in real life. As I’ve noted many times, I’m being typecast as someone who’s something of a stranger to my friends and what passes for family (based on comments after they saw the preview screenings). A few similar comments were made by local viewers who are friends of other characters in the show. Plus, of course, the ratings can’t factor in drastic personal events that aren’t known (hypothetical examples would be losses related to the avalanche or being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.)

There are 11 main characters, but only nine rankings since two married couples are ranked together (with their rankings as individuals in the explanation section). Also, not included for obvious reasons are two characters missing in action: Robert Johansen, founder of Svalbard Bryggeri and Mats McCombe, a guide at Spitsbergen Travel. For reasons still to be learned, it appears they have been “downgraded” to some kind of supporting role (or cut altogether).

The following are the rankings after the first two episodes, which introduces about half of the characters in each. They will be updated as the series progresses beginning two weeks from now with episode three. Disagree with the rankings? Submit yours in the comments section.

9. Mark Sabbatini (the “ex-L.A. Times crime reporter”)
OK, exactly nobody didn’t see this coming. I still have no idea why the hell they cast me for the show and the scant amount of screen time I get (I’m the last to appear nearly halfway through episode one and only have a few short scenes) lacks any “only in Svalbard” elements until the final scene involving a polar bear near town. I play a bit part covering the incident, but officials in a helicopter trying to drug and remove the bear is the dominant imagery. I utter one good line at the end which, as I’ve noted before, I hope the editors of the show took to heart: “In Svalbard we live in a strange world where reality is often stranger than anything that can be invented.”

Prognosis for series: May avoid last place due to a single event affecting me personally that many local know about and what happened in the aftermath. Otherwise, likely to been seen mostly covering newsworthy stuff other characters are involved with.

8. Alex Pilditch (SvalSat employee and tour guide)
He’s the first person viewers see and he utters a great opening line while laying in the snow with a high-tech rifle (“The day you leave town without a rifle will be the day you meet the bear”). But after that he’s seen leading a rather pedestrian snowmobile outing in two short scenes early on, then he vanishes until near the end of episode one when he does some target practice. The problem is a similar scene with two characters near the top of the list occurs near the beginning so it feels repetative.

Prognosis for show: Uncertain, but potential to finish in the middle if his work for SvalSat is emphasized at least as much as his guide work since a few other characters also do tourism work (there is a very brief series of shots of him there before he’s “officially” introduced). The satellite station is one of several faciltities with state-of-the-art data collection/distribution capabilities that are used by most of the world and one of the industries with strong potential in a post-coal mining future here.

7. Ben Finney (Green Dog Svalbard musher)
Alas, we saw some great footage (if overdramatized), but far too little of it as he’s introduced in episode two. The show also tells, rather than shows, the build-up to what can happen with a group of novices on sleds (it’d be nice seeing them getting instructions on steering and throwing anchors, for instance). Once they’re on a trail in the dark a scene where a sled suddenly crashes, wrecking it, is great GoPro footage, but the rest pales to extended dogsledding scenes by other charcters in the first episode.

Prognosis for series: Depends on “X” factors. It doesn’t feel like we know much about him yet. Are there personal stories that boost his profile? And, of course, what adventures has he had with the dogs and tourists? Certainly may be featured in some of the most scenic footage of the series.

6. Chris Borstad (UNIS professor and avalanche expert)
Everyone from this point on is a “gripping” character in their intro and the only reason he’s at the bottom of the A-list is the understated nature of his scenes. He delivers an excellent and accessible lesson about avalanches in his few scenes during episode two, teeing things up perfectly for the massive Dec. 19 slide that will be the focus of episode three. But while we learn lots about avalanches, we still know little about him and other UNIS students who know him said his screen character is somewhat at odds with the guy they know in real life.

Prognosis for series: Will have huge moments, including the third episode obviously, but the frequency of his appearances will be inconsistent. Likely to finish in the spot he started.

5. Leif Magne Helgesen (Svalbard Church priest)
By far the character with the most substantiative screen presence. Not just anyone can do a Clint Eastwood stare or project the pure evilness of Anthony Hopkins, and up here Leif radiates intellectual nobility on-screen like nobody else. Those gifts are used to modest effect early on in an outdoor All Saints Day Mass and are utterly wasted on a trip to Bjørnøya for a Christmas celebration there. He does delivers a highly memorable narration over footage the town’s tree-lighting ceremony. There’s no question the strength and charisma of his persona are revealed, but you find yourself wishing they’d done more of it better.

Prognosis for series: he will rise and almost certainly be in top-three contention due to the avalanche and other events, plus his own personal narrative. The only reason he doesn’t finish there is some gripping stories from the other contenders we’re not aware of.

4. Mary-Ann Dahle (owner of Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg)
It’d be hard to not show this one-of-a-kind personality as she is, which occurs often during the first half of episode one. Her polar bear coat, the collection of sometimes bizarre stuffed bears inside her lodge and the polar bear (and other) penis bones at her bar make her someone outsiders will instantly be fascinated with. She also joyfully and unapologetically cooks “polarizing” food such as seal for a birthday party which, combined with a scene or two involving other characters, may give viewers the wrong idea about how much whale, reindeer, etc. we really eat (not all that much and the store has plenty of vegan/no-glutton/no-dairy/etc.) stuff. But regardless of whether it’s totally accurate, it serves to boost the perception of who she essentially is in real life. She’s absent during the latter part of the show, but is the only character from the first episode to appear in episode two when she picks up and tries to put up a massive (and massively expensive) Christmas tree. What’s missing is the tree was actually put into its stand later by some of her employees when she wasn’t present, but viewers won’t know that and it’s not a terribly relevent plot point.

Prognosis for series: Likely to drop a notch or two during the next couple of episodes, then hover between there and her initial ranking throughout the series. She has far too much personality to drop too far or for too long, but unless something utterly compelling happens she probably won’t finish in the top three.

3. Benjamin Vidmar (founder of Polar Permaculture)
He tied for first for the funniest scene of the first two episodes and all of his scenes were intriguing due to the greenhouse project he’s pursuing (and his 15,000 worms and how a few dozen end up in a kitchen), so this rating kinda seems slightly unfair. Especially since in our interviews after the screenings, he was the character most often mentioned after our winners. But the characters one place above him had a more compelling overall narrative, so for now he has to settle for the bronze. Several viewers called his project admirable, while others simply loved the comic value of his worms. One thing is certain: viewers will definitely come away knowing he is a very different type of resident here.

Prognosis for series: a bit outside the top three. He has a surprisingly strong camera presence, assuming he hasn’t been filmed many, many times over the years compared to characters like Leif and myself. His work and how it progresses is a very solid storyline (in fact, the producers shot some quick scenes of his greenhouse this week to complete it). But in the end it may be surpassed by the overall footage of Leif and maybe others.

2. Christine and Grace Ireland (UNIS student and chef, respectively)
God, I love this young couple. So, apparently, do a ton of others as they dominate screen time in episode one and for good reason. Christine is the more dominant character screenwise (and, damn, does that soft-spoken woman have a set of lungs when it comes to mushing her dogs) and she would probably rank below Chris and Leif on her own. Grace (that’s a nickname, BTW) is more subdued and would rank a couple spots lower. But overall the meshing of their personas is what makes all of the many aspects of their lives shown work. I – and I suspect lots of others – will be thinking “wow…why didn’t I quite get to where they are” when it comes to relationships. Not to mention all of their scenes are incredibly alive in terms of what it means to live here, especially if you hope to move out of town and live off the grid.

Potential for series: unless something unusually gripping happens with the other characters, expect them to remain here throughout.

1. Wiggo and Claudia Antonsen (taxi driver and “Colombian worm killer,” respectively)
This is as obvious as my finishing last. Wiggo is the character literally front and center in the show’s promos and the footage of him in episode two shows why. The guy is a natural comedic poet in real life (when he wants to be…he’s also very much a down-to-Earth gentleman in real life) and the intro to him just offers to opportnity to show off greatest hits. As an individual he would earn the top ranking by a moderate margin. Claudia, however, also ranks highly – probably between Leif and Mary-Ann so far. The scenes where they get out the Christmas decorations and Wiggo dons Santa attire had the local crowd in an uproar, which got “dialed up to 11” when he bailed out on that nonsense to go hunt for tourists to see the Northern Lights. Every local interviewed immediatedly referred to this couple as their favorites.

Prognosis for series: They’ll finish first. The only question is how many weeks they’ll temporarily drop a notch or two due to the storylines of others.