‘Beforeigners’ is a wild time-traveling Scandinavian series with a lot to say about migration, technology and the universal need to connect, writes Dr Lisa Harper Campbell.
YET ANOTHER hidden gem awaits you in the online catalog from SBS on Demand. This time it is the first Norwegian series from HBO Nordic (now HBO Max), a fascinating mix of genres spanning buddy cop comedy, crime thriller, haunting science fiction, and psychological drama.
A young policeman buys an apartment with his wife for their growing family, aware of the significant investment he is making by buying in the heart of the city. As he signs the contract, the realtor assures him that buying in this location is never a bad idea. That might have been true but when visitors come from the neighboring country Bjørvika bay that night these visitors stay and change Oslo’s cultural landscape forever.
A tensely chilly opening sequence lays the groundwork for this imagined and very messy world in which we find our protagonists. The first group of time travelers, a group of confused Vikings, arrive in the water at the Oslo Opera House.
Our young police officer, Lars Haaland (Nicolai Cleve Broch), is the first to respond to the location. As he tries to make sense of the situation, television reports from around the world begin to pour in. People migrate from the past all over the world. How and why will remain questions to be resolved but the more pressing question of “now what?” is the one on which series creator Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin ruminate.
Instead of lingering on the immediate aftermath of the first arrivals and getting bogged down in expositional scientific explanations, the first episode takes us immediately into the future, much like its titular characters.
What welcomes the audience during the opening credits is a diverse modern Oslo where different cultural (and chronological) groups have learned to coexist over many years.
Haaland’s apartment building by the bay is now filled to the brim with “time migrants”. His upstairs neighbor is a Stone Age, his parking lot has become a Viking square, and his wife has left him for a 19th-century gentleman who acts as a warm yet versatile and strict stepfather to Lars’ now teenage daughter.
The main focus of series one is the budding friendship between Haaland and the Oslo police’s first recruit from the Viking Age, Alfhildr Enginsdottir (Krista Kosonen).
As they investigate the death of a Stone Age woman, complex conspiracies emerge including Neo-Luddite movement rejection of modern technology, trafficking in unsuspecting time migrants, and the existence of a multi-temporal federal agency overseeing the mysterious time travel to (and perhaps from) the present.
Season two is much darker as Alfhildr and Lars investigate a serial killer lookalike Jack the Ripper.
Secondary characters provide moments of deep sadness. An investigator of Jewish ancestry following the trail of Jack the Ripper has traveled to the present day from 19th century England. A one-shot line of dialogue reveals that he suffered a mental breakdown upon discovering that all of his descendants had been killed in the Holocaust. Jumping forward does not mean skipping the pain.
Despite the moments of existential confusion, fear and loss, there is plenty of humor woven throughout the story as well.
Kosonen and Cleve Broch are the show’s anchors, the former serving as a particularly strong compass even when the story begins to lean into the absurd. It’s a series that takes its leaps across the space-time continuum and from one weird (but still wonderful) plot point to the next.
The humor also allows for biting satire. When Saint Olaf (former king of Norway) cannot prove his identity, a senior official equates Olaf’s warrior status with his own – proving that today the bureaucratic pen is indeed mightier than the Viking sword. “So, I guess we’re both mean.”
Exchanges like these allow the series to comment on contemporary (and very real) issues of racism, prejudice, forced assimilation and exclusion surrounding immigration and migration.
The assumption might be that people coming from the past would be so fond of today’s technology and therefore accept and adapt to this change. Not like that. In Beforeigners, these groups cling to their past rituals, languages and identities.
To their credit, the modern Norwegian institutions in this created world really do their best to recognize and welcome this diversity, offering opportunities without curtailing freedoms.
A mountain of dedicated research is behind the production of this series. Linguists were hired to teach the Stone Age, Old Norse and 19th century versions of Norwegian to actors and the production design details are brilliant.
A bid has been made for a third series to be commissioned but the ground looks a bit shaky after HBO Max removed all of its Scandinavian content after its fusion with WarnerMedia in July this year. Hurry while the two series are available on SBS on Demand.