In the post-terrestrial TV world, with myriad streaming options (does anyone else feel like they spend more time on the Netflix homepage with decision anxiety than actually watching shows?), it takes something special to cut through to viewers. And sometimes it’s the most unsuspecting stories that end up generating the biggest following. Co-writer and creator of “Verbúðin”, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, knows that acutely:
“Who would have thought that we would be so into a story about a chemistry teacher who was dying of cancer and wanted to make money for his family, or a major nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union?” he points out. And yet the premise of Verbúðin – in which Björn also plays one of the main characters – goes a step beyond both Breaking Bad and Chernobyl into even more unlikely territory. You see, it’s about fishing quotas.
Fact and fiction
Except of course, it’s not. It’s really about people, Iceland, small towns, big dreams, greed, loyalty, morality and how equally awful and amazing the 80s were. But fishing quotas form a backdrop to these very human narratives, and according to Björn, that’s for good reason.
“I mean, it’s one of the big stories of this country,” Björn says, seriously. “We are always looking for stories like this, asking ourselves, ‘What should we be saying?’”
But delving into recent history, especially regarding political decisions that remain contentious to this day, also presents challenges. Björn is quick to remind us that Verbúðin (or Blackport, as it’s called in English) is “not a documentary.” Nevertheless, some critics have called out what they see as historical inaccuracies within the show. Björn however, takes this lightly:
“Icelanders, we’re really hung up on facts; ‘this wasn’t here until 1984’ and so on. So we’re kind of teasing people by being a bit off sometimes. People have to put their focus on the main story, what this is all about, rather than ‘this car isn’t right.’ But it’s a very Icelandic thing,” he says, with a wry smile.
Acceptable in the 80s
One of the best things about the show, in fact, is it’s representation of the era. Regardless of whether or not every song played fits the timeline accurately, the overall look, sound and sensation is spot on. Björn explains that part of the reason he felt so connected to the idea of the show was because he himself was a teenager during the 80s, and he talks passionately about the experience of recreating this period for viewers.
“When we were growing up, Reykjavík was more like a small town in the Soviet Union than anything else.” he says. “It all changed in the 80s. There was more freedom in media, everything was opening up to popular music and television and radio. I don’t want to call it a cultural revolution, but suddenly the American president was here. We could drink beer! And politically as well, with the privatisation of companies… It was just a really big decade.”
“We don’t want to preach.”
Of course it’s not just the pop culture of Iceland in the 80s that’s on display in Verbúðin, but also the politics. And this is an area where Björn and his co-creators made sure to tread carefully.
“We never set out to say, ‘We are left-wing artists from the capital, look at how horrible these people are who own all the quota.’” Björn explains. “Our intention is just to shine a light and say, ‘this is how this happened.’ We don’t want to preach.”
And finally, for those who have binged all of Verbúðin so far and are eagerly hoping for more, there is hope:
“We always said we had enough ideas for two more seasons,” Björn says candidly, before adding, with a laugh, “We have a few more decades to catch up with.”
‘Verbúðin’ is available to stream on RÚV’s website. English subtitles are available.
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