Liveblog: ‘Svalbard: Life on the Edge,’ Episode 4 (‘Into the Light’), from Coal Miners Cabins


9:30 p.m.: This week should be an interesting gauge of the show’s popularity with the local population. This liveblog is occuring at a quasi-rustic restaurant/pub that seems to be the most popular of four places hosting public screenings so far. The first three episodes all had standout factors making them of heightened interest – the first two introduced the characters and the third was the make-or-break avalanche episode – and were all featured at preview screeenings at the main theater in town. This week: no preview and an ordinary episode that – if the “next week” snippets are any indication – will feature the annual return-of-the sun ceremony, a lighthearted approach to characters doing tourist-oriented work and (educated guess) a character participating in an annual two-day dogsledding race.

The preview scenes makes sense since, as with the first two episodes, five characters had significant roles in Episode Three. So expect to see these names who weren’t featured last week a lot in Episode Four: Christine and Grace Ireland (the former being the musher in the race, Alex (snowmobile guide and SvalSat employee), Mary-Ann Dahle (lodge owner, Ben Finney (dogsledding guide; a maybe, since a coworker was a “supporting” character last week) and Benjamin Vidmar (another maybe since he’s absent from the trailers; it’s possible his greenhouse project will get a lot more airtime during the second half of the ten-episode series for a few reasons).

I’m guessing the series will maintain the pattern, although mixing up the characters every week rather than keeping a strict schedule of altering them. Keep in mind, pretty much every prediction I’ve made about this series has been wrong so far.

The initial crowd is minuscule. A couple dining at the far end of a long rectangular room, three people in the lounge chairs nearest a muted big screen TV showing some BBC Earth reality series based in Alaska and a lone woman working at the bar. Who just unmuted the TV, making me wrong yet again.

One thought that occurred to me at the end of last week. The first three episodes took us from the end of October all the way to the second week of March. The show ended filming at the end of May. While I’ve heard some flip-flopping from show executives about whether it’s meant to be presented more or less chronologically, one thing a number of locals have smirked/griped/shrugged about is how obviously the show time travels rather freely during episodes. It’s beyond obvious if you live characters in scene in the spring may be seen during the fall or winter in the scene immediately after. For those watching at home who want to play the game, look for snow levels: Generally speaking, more snow means it’s later during the eight-month timespan (especially when there’s daylight; record rainfall and heat after that awful storm that caused the avalanche caused record flooding and left us with bare ground again during the dark season).

9:46 p.m.: Made a quick (for me) bathroom stop. I’m back…and I believe there are many more people in the room. (Trivia: name the royal pain who said this and win a free subscription.)

10 p.m.: And we’re off (as always, I’ll fix the typos and fill in details afterward). Narrator: “This program contains language some may find offensive.” Hard to believe with Mary-Ann in the show (although they beep out the profamily in the preview).

10:01 p.m.: Title: “Into the Light”

10:02 p.m.: Opens with Christine preparing, with Grace’s help, for the first dogsledding race of the spring as the dark season ends. It’s a 30-kilometer course. They’re struggling a bit training, with Chrstine mentioning they nearly divorced after a mishap. Narrator repeats mention from the couple’s first episode their plan to live in a remote cabin off-the-grid (you’ll be hearing such summaries a lot for everyone, I’m guessing, but as a newspaper editor I also try to make stories accessible for those new to the subject). Narrator mentions this race is a qualifier for the 75-kilometer Trappers Trail (the big race I mentioned at beginning…in my hurried pre-thoughts I blanked this one out).

10:04 p.m.: -10C and Christine, who suffered frostbite before, is feeling pain. Grace helps warm her hands. Narrator talks about the perils Out There and all the stuff and perseverence needed to deal with them.

10:06 p.m.: Race underway with music you might hear in an extreme ski movie. She has three hours to finish to qualify. (For those slow with numbers, that’s a leisurely jog…albeit for 180 minutes with cannine companions who can greatly help or hinder you. And it’s not like you’re jogging through Central Park.)

10:07 p.m.: Mats, promoted as a main character in early press releases, is introduced as a supporting character. Works as a Spitsbergen Travel guide. Gets a ton of laughs for various lines, including talking about driving the Porsche of the Arctic (his first scene is a wheel-spinning drop-clutch pullout in the snow). Oddly, my car may rivel his – if only there was a place to race. (Post-show note: he drives what appears at a very quick glance to be a Carrera maybe a decade old, but I’ll no have no idea if I’m right until I ask. I drive another of the top-five useless sports cars here, a 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STI. I’ll let the fanatics debate which is better for a place like this for now, but don’t be surpised to see a local supercar comparison in the fishwrapper soon).

10:09 p.m.: Scene of sun peeking over the edge of the mountains. Mary-Ann greets guests arriving at her lodge. Narrator repeats the place is quirky, she’s been here 18 years and does everything herself and works over 100 hours a week. Narrator: “But today she’s picking up a new chef who may allow her to take some time off.” OK, this should be an amusing (if exaggerted compared to reality) storyline.

10:11 p.m.: Mary-Ann says Svalbard not for everyone – some people can’t take it and bail after two weeks. While I think those people are insane, I kinda understand (despite the show’s obsession about my being from L.A., all I did during the four years I was there during my 48 on the planet was think about escaping). New cook cheerfully picked up at airport, then they go  straight to kitchen for busy dinner shift. Narrator says she’s a tough boss, but so far no Gordon Ramsay factor yet.

10:13 p.m.: Seal on menu. New chef tentatively says he should be OK with cooking the steaks for the first time. Mary-Ann makes tiny adjustments like where garlic should be placed. They mostly seem to get along. And the guests like the steaks, so all’s good. New chef: “You are coming into another chef’s kitchen. You just have to take the orders and do what they say.”

10:15 p.m.: Narrator says this is the best time of year for tourists to visit. Can’t really argue. BTW, pretty sure the large group in the room works for Spitsbergen Travel because I’m hearing shoutouts every time an employee is shown briefly on the screen (then again, in an everyone-knows-everyone town…).

10:16 p.m.: Mats begins a snowmobile expedition with a group to (I’m guessing) the east coast of Spitsbergen in search of polar bears.

10:17 p.m.: Narrator with oversimplifed and misleading fact: two or three polar bears killed a year due to human encounters. This year we’ve had four already, all since April. Some years we have none. One of those times where merely a few simple words like “an average of” would have put some context into it.

10:18 p.m.: Hmm…I’m on, in a temporary emergency flat for two weeks after being tossed out of my old one because the building was unsafe. Surprised to see myself after being the dominant character last week (about one-third of the total screen time). Then again, that episode ended with my existence here dangling by a thread, so answering “what happens next” makes sense.

10:19 .m.: Thankfully, they quickly move past my whinning. Narrator: “He may have been offered a lifeline.” I explain what an incredibly active woman did to bail me out here (will post link to article shortly). Anne Lise Sandvik talks about the effort she made to get people to chip in for a place for six months. Talks about the work I’ve put into the fishwrapper and “if he were to leave we would lose the things he has to give to us.”

10:21 p.m.: Back to Mary-Ann’s. Guests tonight order cod tongue as a starter (mmmm…the grocery store orders stuff like this by mistake at times – they’ve also had chickrn feet, pig’s lungs, etc – and all but give it away to folks like me who will happy add the word “recipe” to a Google search). Chef: “I have to make it the same way she makes it. If not I will need to take the highway tomorrow.” Narrator: “Depsite Jim’s best efforts, Mary-Ann is proving hard to please.” I dunno if kitchens here are different than elsewhere on Earth, but I’ve found a certain amount of tension will always exist, especially when things are busy or in the weeds.

10:22 p.m.: She’s mildly irritated, not over the line into Ramsayland. Narrator: “And it was all going so well.” Chef: “I don’t think Mary-Ann was very impressed with my cooking today.” Says Mary-Ann keeps recipes in head and “I’m not mind reader.”

10:24 p.m.: Two hours into Mats’ expedition a snowmobile breaks down. Takes about 15 minutes to repair, “but in these subzero temperatures they’ve burned as many calories as a full hour’s exercise.” Importance of food is emphasized (BTW, I’m missing a ton of inside jokes based on the constant laughter from the group behind me).

10:27 p.m.: Christine at halfway point in race. Fifth out of six “and unlike Mats, she’s remembered to bring the food.” (Will go back and see the reference I missed later, since obviously I misded a line or two while typing). Christine says happy she’s not last. Narrator says endurance, not speed, is the key. Narrator: “All is going well until the dogs passes some skiiers and smell the food.” Frantz is among the dogs who go nuts trying to go astray. But now about nine kilometers to go and things look promising. Narrator: “But the dogs are becoming entangled, which could be a problem.”

10:30 p.m.: BTW, Christine’s shouted mushing commands could almost make for a vocal track on some album of indiginous Arctic music. There’s a reason her “ja-ja-ja-jaja” keeps showng up in preview soundtracks.

10:31 p.m.: Early morning at Mary-Ann’s. Breakfast underway, “but there is no sign of the new chef Jim.” Mary-Ann says he quit. Mary-Ann writes dismissal letter (spoiler: guessing they’ll work their difference out; UPDATE…NOT!). Jim takes letter and says (“I don’t understand why you got like this”). Mary-Ann: “You are too slow and you don’t know what to do.” Now they’re both talking heatedly. We have achieved full Ramsayland! And, yup, the curses are bleeped out.

10:33 p.m.: Mary-Ann: “He never could have taken over this kitchen.” Narrator: “The question is, can anyone?” (I gotta talk to her and see how “real” this scene was, but that was a pretty hard exchange to take out of context. I’m guessing, as with all such disputes on reality TV some will be full of “you go girl” cheer and and some will consider her a total bitch. The hometown crowd, of course, will be behind her all the way.)

10:36 p.m.: Christine nears finish line with gorgeous sun-on-horizon shots, which makes her teary. Crosses finish line in two hours and 37 minutes. “I’m happy. I got my beer…I’ll be happy with the next sausage in my mouth.” (Um, yup, reaction is exactly what you expect and I’m guessing she’d better get used to hearing that line for a while).

10:37 p.m.: Me packing up my temp place for move to new flat. I packed everything in grocery bags when I frantically left my old place, so it’s a massively disorganized pile. Go to Fruene, where Anne Lise hands over the “key to heaven.” She asked for a few minutes to talk privately first, where discussed some practical stuff, none of which would be worthy if it were on-camera.

10:38 p.m.: We drive over there, with Mary-Ann acting as doorman outside. I note to camera “I got to make my own situation after six months” as I unlock the door to the flat, but am grateful for the chance. I walk in and love the place – first time I’ve had an oven and real fridge, there’s a killer view, and it’s much bigger than my old flat.

10:40 p.m.: I talk about how important it is to resume work so I can go on after six months on my own. Anne Lise, who’s been here for 42 years, says always leaves a scar when people leave. Anna Lise and I exchange well wishes before she departs.

10:42 p.m.: Mats and group spots big polar bear tracks that appear to be fresh.

10:43 p.m.: Now they’re out of time and have to head home. Narrator: “But just when they’ve given up…”

10:44 p.m. A mother bear and cub appear about two kilometers away on ice floes. Folks here are laughing their asses off listening to narrator talk about how bears can run 40 km/h and how long it’ll take to reach the group. Went through some of this with a polar bear near town in Episode One.

10:44 p.m.: Solfestuka festival, with tons of cute pictures of kids in sun costumes singing and whatnot. Cue dramatic and inspriation music as sun peeks over horizon. It’s worth nothing this year’s festival was one of the most spectacular ever – very often it’s cloudy/stormy and we don’t come close too seeimg the sun. But a 78-year-old woman who’s lived here nearly 50 years (with a hardship story from her time as a WWII refugee that makes my troubles seem like a momentary smack to the funny bone) told me it’s among the three or four best she remembers. Narrator talks about how it’s a new start for the town and for me. Cuts to me talking about what I love about Svalbard. One word: “community,” which I’ll get into after the show is over. (Post-show note: OK, what I mean is how Svalbard is truly a community in all possible aspects: the citizens of more than 40 countries who come and go, and essentially have to accept each other in such an isolated place; the different settlements which almost qualify as their own countries that must have similar relationships; the balance of the wildlife population with each other and with humans; how all living forms have to cope and accept/adjust to the natural elements; the interaction with the native inhabitants and outsiders ranging from tourists to global policymakers. It is, to use an unfortunate cliche in the wake of climate change, the ultimate melting pot – although one with some very, very unusual rules of society.)

10:46 p.m.: Preview of next week: Ben V., Alex, me, Chris, Leif. Nice first-person snowmobile crash shot at end.

11:01 p.m.: Immediate post reaction: group behind me were friends of Mats. They thought the show was great due to all the humor.