Slow-Watching Slow TV: All Aboard The Train From Bergen To Oslo

With 25 hours of incredibly boring, incredibly soothing reality TV — feautring train rides, knitting, and burning yule logs — Netflix is riding Scandinavia’s slow TV movement express

This August, Netflix added about 25 hours of Norwegian reality TV to its collection of bingeable content. The show that sparked the slow TV trend, Bergensbanen Minutt for Minutt — or, as Netflix has redubbed it, Slow TV: Train Ride Bergen to Oslo — aired in 2009, and featured the riveting first-person tale of a train making a trek from Bergen to Oslo. In order to try to understand why so many people would choose escapism that does not abridge life for some higher purpose, but instead allows you to burrow into the quotidian, un-concentrated moments of someone else’s life, we are going to live-blog all seven hours and 14 minutes of this journey.

Buckle up — it’s going to be a rather smooth, if incredibly long and boring ride.

0:00: The train from Bergen to Oslo made its first voyage in 1909, but no one thought to put a camera on the front of it and transmit unedited footage of the journey until a century later. Nearly 1.2 million viewers tuned in to watch part of the trip. Only 5 million people live in Norway. However, fewer than 200,000 people watched the program all the way through. It is not a show for bingeing or being a completist. Watching a slow TV show all the way through is like eating a king-size bag of Skittles and not throwing out the disgusting purple ones.

But here we are.

It begins with a scene saved for many a movie’s end: the sun rising on a station platform as a train prepares to part. The setting is obvious — where else would a seven-hour TV special about a train trip begin? — but it also feels like a courteous gesture on the part of the producers. If this is the clichéd scene that often precedes the credits, the plot must be over. There is no script to consult, no Brita filter through which we can strain the impending scenery. I am about to spend seven hours watching a train that is not personified, has no friends, and definitely does not have Tom Cruise aboard traverse the Scandinavian countryside. There are six people on the platform, and two of them wave goodbye. One of them is thrusting their arm over their head at such a glacial pace it seems like a warning: If you think this is slow, turn back now. You can watch nearly an entire season of Stranger Things in the time that it will take to finish this journey. And you aren’t even on the train, so you don’t even get to visit a new place at the end. You’ll still be on your bed. Go outside, enjoy life — it is interactive slow TV! But the train has already left the station, and has attained the calming, plodding speed that it will retain for much of the next seven hours. It’s too late to get off now.

0:01: Only one minute in, and we’ve reached our first tunnel, which means watching a black screen with whispering and weird whirring sounds in the background for four minutes. It feels like sitting in a low-budget sensory deprivation chamber that someone rigged up inside a washing machine at a busy laundromat. The route features more than 11 miles of tunnels. Can we really call this slow TV if we don’t watch the workers spend months carving out pathways through the walls of metamorphic rock, or witness the rock first blocking the train’s path after exposure to intense heat and pressure millions of years ago, before finally seeing the locomotive make its glorious expedition?

For a brief moment, the train is outside again. Then the screen goes black again. Maybe the reason that so many people watched this show is because they assumed their TV was off.

0:10: Judging from the many stories that have been published in the past five years trying to figure out why anyone would watch these shows, there are three main ways to defend Norwegian reality TV. First, it is the Norway equivalent of singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for seven hours straight. Norway is beautiful, and shows like this let you freebase the landscape in its undiluted glory. It’s like putting chamomile tea in a humidifier while you listen to the rainstorm option on your phone’s White Noise app. The slow TV shows National Firewood Morning, National Firewood Evening, and National Firewood Night, which span a combined 12 hours, pregames the endless showcase of crackling fires with debates about how to properly stack wood and serves as an ode to Norway’s timber. A few years later, a book titled Norwegian Wood — no, not the Beatles song or the Haruki Murakami novel — became a wild best seller across the globe because, not despite of, its insanely in-depth guidelines of how to correctly chop wood and stack it. It is like those writing prompts your elementary school teachers gave you about how to explain to an alien how you’d open a door or sharpen a pencil. There is an entire Cosmo-style page devoted to explaining what you can tell about a potential spouse from their woodpile. (If you see “large and small logs piled together, the person who built it is frugal. Kindling sneaked in among the logs suggests a considerate man.”) Like slow TV, it is beautiful, and perhaps it would not have worked as well if its prose could not luxuriate in every last detail. (I would also subscribe to Norwegian Cosmo and read articles like 10 Pairs of Flannel Long Johns That Will Rock His Wool Socks, What He’s Trying to Say When He Stares at the Fire for Five Hours in Complete Silence, and Fifty Shades of Gray: How to Perk Up Your Sex Life When the World Outside Is All the Same Color.)

Second, as our industrious narrator Rune Møklebust puts it, you never know what will happen next. “Will the cow keep walking? Will it stop?” he told the New York Times in 2014. “You just don’t know. And this is exciting.” Others have compared it to NASCAR, but instead of waiting for a crash, you are waiting to see if anything will happen at all. Another “slow TV pioneer” told the Washington Post last year that that dash of intrigue was enough: “Probably nothing much will happen in the next hour, but you never know!” Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a communal activity, like watching the debates or the Olympics. It seems unlikely that this concept could succeed if millions of people couldn’t descend on Twitter to watch what people were saying about the train in real-time in order to make the act of watching the passage of time bearable. One teacher told the Wall Street Journal that she let her students watch when a journalist conducted a 30-hour-long interview with someone “known to the Norwegian public for a seemingly infinite knowledge of American presidents, a famous obsession with allergies and flair for the unconventional — including once having grown his beard on only one side.”

“It was very exciting for us to be part of something that happened in the exact same second, somewhere in Oslo,” she said.

0:49: Plot twist: It’s foggy.

0:55: Nearly an hour into the show, we finally glimpse our first humans, again at Voss Station. If the entirety of Wall-E were exactly like the wordless first 22 minutes of the film and featured a hunk of metal that was deeply infatuated with a taciturn tunnel that it weirdly kept meeting over and over again, it would be exactly like the first hour of Bergensbanen Minutt for Minutt.

1:12: Passengers are reminded over the loudspeaker that you can get hot dogs in the café car. There is a special where you can get a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun for 30 krone. Snowcapped mountains are finally visible. Three dogs are chasing each other in a yard. This is the most exciting thing that’s happened.

1:22: There are drops of water on the window in front of the camera. If the camera is the protagonist of this show, this is the first adversity she has faced thus far. It is not clear how she will overcome such a trial, since she has no free will and her destiny has been preordained: She will get to Oslo.

1:30: Although Norwegian reality TV unfurls at a pace that obeys the strictures of space and time, the cow to Snowpiercer’s condensed milk, it is not real life. In life, you cannot break the fourth wall, which just happened on Bergensbanen Minutt for Minutt. One of the people who made this TV show is on the train, explaining to the passengers what the show will be like while we are watching the show.

“Nothing will be played on fast-forward,” Rune Møklebust explains. (I refuse to believe that something exciting is not about to happen; you don’t put an omniscient figure named Rune Møklebust in your TV show unless you want something terribly fantastical to occur.) “The program will be in real time.” It’s not clear whether Rune Møklebust is a reliable narrator, but he does seem to be telling the truth here. What is clear is that if Norway ever does a 24-hour version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Rune Møklebust should play the main character.

2:00: At Myrdal Station, a tourist in a fedora takes a photo of the train. He is probably unaware that he is being watched, and that his movements will be later seen by thousands.

2:30: Plot development: There’s snow everywhere. The train is passing the Hardangerjøkulen glacier, which is where the Hoth scenes for Star Wars were filmed. Imagine watching The Empire Strikes Back, except without any Tauntauns and 100 percent more undulating train tracks, and that’s basically what’s on-screen right now.

3:00: After this aired, was the train conductor like, “FINALLY. Now everyone knows how cool my job is,” or was he like, “Why would anyone watch this if they weren’t getting paid?”

3:10: THERE WAS A BRIDGE FOR FIVE SECONDS. My heart is pounding.

3:13: ANOTHER TRAIN JUST PASSED BY. Anything that is not snow is intoxicating. Power lines, signs, intriguing whispers off-screen happening in the front of the train — I will inhale it all.

3:30: America has been doing slow TV for decades — NYC TV station WPIX first shot footage of a festive fire at Gracie Mansion for a three-hour-long Christmas program in 1966. Since then, there have been bear and panda cams, but nothing that approaches the phenomenon status of Norway’s programming. But it would be cheap for a network to just put a camera on an Amtrak train, and the resulting footage would be weird enough to become a social media event. (Please do this.) Or maybe when C-SPAN is done filming the proceedings in the Senate for the day, the camera is left on to document whatever doesn’t happen when the chamber is empty. Toy Story, except for the legislative branch.

4:00: It might be hard to judge the allure of Bergensbanen Minutt for Minutt if you aren’t watching it along with thousands of Norwegians on social media, because you decided it would be wise to watch it on Netflix, by yourself, seven years later. The appeal is still understandable. It feels somewhat like mass or going for a run — a familiar backdrop for an extended period of thinking. Just because you have a lot of time to think doesn’t mean you have to think about anything profound, which is why I have been spending the past four hours trying to discover any possible plots hiding off-screen. I am desperate to hang a narrative onto this show.

The most promising lead is that a romantic comedy is unfolding in the front of the train. It’s like if Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight were smushed into one movie, and all the action took place in areas impossible to discern if you lack peripheral vision. This entire time, bracketed captions have appeared at the bottom of the screen dropping hints about what is happening behind the camera. My understanding of what makes a plot may have completely disassembled in the past few hours, but these sound like stage directions for a mediocre rom-com that I would watch right now:

[metallic clang] [faint laughter] [announcement continues indistinctly] [metallic clang] [indistinct conversation] [woman laughs] [metallic clang] [laughter] [chimes] [driver moves objects around the cabin] [man coughs] [metallic clang] [internal door opens] [internal door closes] [woman laughs] [train horn blares] [crockery rattles] [man: The view is nice.] [mobile phone alert] [man laughs]

Other possible plotlines:

• The tourist taking pictures was a spy. The fedora was a disguise.

• The Norwegians have taken over the Polar Express train, and all the indistinct conversation is just animated Tom Hanks trying to speak over his gag.

• The water droplets return to foil Rune Møklebust’s plan to make the greatest TV show of all time.

• That cow that Møklebust mentioned finally appears. The cow had been waiting its entire life to find the train that killed its father and get revenge. However, the cow, which had been waiting five hours for the train after researching the schedule, picked the exact wrong moment to turn around and stare at the reflection of the trees in the lake. The train passes. The cow continues to wait, unaware that it missed everything.

• In the end, we learn that it was all a dream. Becoming a conductor in Norway is like becoming a taxi driver in London (we hope), and an aspiring enthusiast who has been studying for his final exams without sleeping for days finally goes to bed. He sleeps for seven hours, and dreams in trains.

4:10: There is a lot of [indistinct conversation] and [laughing] happening. I wish these captions were more specific. Are we talking [witty banter] or [passive-aggressive comment] or [story about my childhood that helps you understand my flaws]? Outside the train, where interesting things are probably happening that we aren’t allowed to watch, the mountains are reflected in the lake, and the snow is gone. There must be a subsidy for red or yellow houses in Norway, because they are everywhere.

4:15: I’m trying to heighten my ability to appreciate the many notes hidden in a swig of utter boredom by reading about other mundane trends. Did you know, for example, that there is a Boring Conference? “Previous highlights,” per The Guardian, “include a talk about electric hand dryers by ‘a man so fascinated by them that he had installed a Dyson Airblade in his house,’ and a speaker who ‘rollerbladed round the hall while reading from a book about the relative weights and densities of different kinds of metal.’” The founder of this annual event says that when you look at ordinary events “more closely, they reveal themselves to be actually deeply fascinating.”

4:37: Someone adjusted the camera.

4:48: Five cars just passed. Since we’ve only seen, like, three cars on this entire trip, it seems safe to assume that it was a car chase. Things are getting thrilling here as we approach hour five.

5:00: Only two hours left. You can tell we’re nearing the end; the train is next to a well-traveled road (maybe it wasn’t a car chase), and there are more red houses than usual. The mountains have receded, and the ground is mostly flat. The front of the train is quieter than usual. At this point, I cheat and get up to make a phone call, explaining to the person on the other end of the line that I am watching a cerebral spy romance. I do not recommend that they watch the program. When I reluctantly return to my laptop, the screen looks exactly the same.

5:14: This show would be infinitely better if it had a Werner Herzog voice-over noting that the yellow light at the end of the tunnel never seems to get any closer, that the darkness is absolute, and that the world seems to have left us behind, leaving behind a flickering beacon reminding us of all the time we have lost. But then it wouldn’t be Norwegian reality TV. Perhaps the only solution is to have Werner Herzog do the train announcements for every train in the world, so that it becomes real life. But can you live life if you are trapped in your screen, seduced by a window into the world outside? In real life, would you not be able to stare out a different window? Would you not be able to get a hot dog in the café car? But there can be no voice-over in real life. We must try to edit meaning into the train ride ourselves. No one can discern the motives of the hypothetical and miserable cow or the unending metallic clangs but ourselves.

5:17: Bergensbanen Minutt for Minutt is testing us. The train tracks aren’t even curving anymore. We’re just going in a straight line on an empty plain. This is like running the 46th mile of a marathon.

5:20: This show has less than two stars on Netflix. According to Netflix’s algorithm, people who enjoy Bergensbanen Minutt for Minutt will also enjoy Cosmos, Secrets of Great British Castles, Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Scroll, and Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23.

5:30: I have watched more than five hours of Norwegian reality TV, and the only thing I have learned is that 24 was a lie.

6:11: The train has stopped. We have to wait for a signal to continue. We can be thankful that Karl Ove Knausgaard was not in charge of this production, because he would probably make a seven-hour program about the three minutes we paused on the tracks, unspooling all the agonizing thoughts he had about his childhood in that spare moment.

6:30: The cafeteria is now closed, not that the person watching this on TV cares because no one on-screen even offered them a hot dog. The person on the loudspeaker welcomes us back for another trip. Has anyone ever watched Bergenbanen: Minutt for Minutt twice? The train will be arriving five minutes late. This is like being told that you are actually watching the extended cut of Gigli.

6:58: The disembodied voice thanks us for riding with him. The trees and lakes have been replaced with graffiti-covered walls and imposing gray buildings. We start where we began — in an exceptionally long tunnel. We are now stopped at an underground train platform, and may never reach our final destination.

7:02: Oh god, we’re still at the National Theater platform. If waiting underground at a train stop that takes passengers to watch entertaining shows for what seems like hours is supposed to be a joke, NO ONE IS LAUGHING.

7:04: OK, we moved. Now the train is in a tunnel again.

7:06: Oh, holy mother of Rune Møklebust, the train stopped again. This is how it must have felt to be on one of the subway cars that wasn’t filled with crickets on the train that stopped for 30 minutes in New York City last week. This TV show has more false endings than a Peter Jackson movie.

7:11: We have finally arrived in Oslo. Before we get the chance to see what our destination is like, the screen fades to black, reminding us that this show was all about the journey, even though it’s dark outside now and we traveled across an entire country without ever leaving the apartment. Maybe you need to watch all 12 hours of the Firewood show to truly reach the Norwegian slow TV equivalent of OT VIII. Even worse, I must have blinked when the cow appeared. Did it keep walking? Did it stop? Does it matter?

Movie & TV Awards 2018