The sarcastic wag who first drawled the phrase “as exciting as watching grass grow” never intended it as a compliment. But have you ever actually watched grass grow? I mean, I haven’t either, but there must be a pretty cool hidden world of fresh-smelling earth and tickly dew and bugs and stuff down there. And maybe if we could watch blades of grass growing in such extreme close-up, we’d become so invested in the upward progress of those little suckers that we couldn’t tear ourselves away.
Watching Slow TV, the Norwegian phenomenon now streaming on Netflix, is like watching grass grow; whether or not you’re excited by this prospect depends on your patience for the microscopic view. The commercial-free Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) launched Slow TV (Sakte-TV) in 2009 with an unedited seven-hour broadcast of a train ride from Bergen to Oslo, shot from the perspective of the train driver. The show became a national obsession, leading to more live TV marathons that grew successively more ambitious and eccentric in both length and choice of subject: 12 hours devoted to chopping and burning wood; 18 hours of salmon fishing; 134 hours, broadcast around the clock, of a cruise along the Norwegian coast.
Nothing is too slow or mundane for Slow TV, which is part of its charm. Sure, you can treat any of the 11 episodes available on Netflix as background noise. But if you commit your full attention (no checking social media or sorting laundry), Slow TV can be a meditative, captivating experience. As you watch Bergen to Oslo, the seven-hour train ride (even in small segments), forests, suburbs, stations and several-minutes-long black tunnels float by, the tracks stretching into the distance from your cab’s-eye view. With only ambient train noise for a soundtrack, it’s easy to zone out into a peaceful traveler’s headspace. This is so much more pleasant than Amtrak. Or Ambien.
Netflix’s other Slow TV titles focus deeply on everyday Norwegian life (with English subtitles). If your experience of Norway is limited (like mine) to the Winter Olympics and Monty Python’s Dead Parrot pining for the fjords, then the series makes for a fascinating cultural immersion. Skip the disappointing hourlong condensed versions Northern Railway, Northern Passage and Salmon Fishing (nothing you couldn’t see on PBS), and go straight to National Firewood Evening, which is, in the words of its sensibly bundled-up host Rebecca Nedregotten Strand, “12 hours of live transmission about firewood — it’s basically crazy!” Norwegians, we learn, take their wood seriously. “It ignites sparks in us. It creates flaming passions,” exclaims Nedregotten Strand. A firewood historian observes, “Without it, nobody could bear living in this cold country.”
The wintry, four-hour episode is like a telethon for wood, minus the begging for donations. Logs have not been this lovingly photographed since Twin Peaks. We learn how to chop them, stack them in aesthetically pleasing piles, safely burn them. The woodfest continues with National Firewood Night and National Firewood Morning, which together make up what is basically eight hours of the Yule Log of Christmases past (the original slow TV). Except that this roaring fire’s musical accompaniment forsakes Bing Crosby for many different versions of — what else? — “Norwegian Wood.”
National Knitting Morning, National Knitting Evening and National Knitting Night also are wrapped up in Nordic pride — and wool, so much wool. This earnest, weirdly compelling 12-hour package features knitters (mostly women) who are as passionate about casting and stitching as the wood lovers are about fires. The participants, in fabulous handmade sweaters and scarves, yarn-bomb a Harley and discuss the meaning behind Norway’s many national knitting patterns. A sheep is shorn. An attempt is made to break the world record for spinning wool. The show is as comfortingly rustic as the clicking of knitting needles.
Netflix might have missed an opportunity, though, by not offering the 2014 Slow TV broadcast Piip-show (“Peep Show”), 14 hours of birds visiting camera-rigged feeders that have been cunningly designed to resemble a miniature coffee shop and quaintly furnished apartments. (You can view the archived Piip-show on the NRK website.) In the United States, similar live-streamed nature look-ins have become popular among those of us stuck working on computers all day; we open tabs to watch otter cams, falcon cams, puffin cams, hoping for an escape from the overstimulating — yet often unsatisfying — flow of noise that is life lived online.
That daydream of escape is Slow TV’s greatest attraction. The series invites you to connect with nature without going outside, to virtually experience the satisfaction of crafting something useful with your hands while sitting on your ass doing work that produces nothing tangible. It’s all a bit ironic and sad, but never mind. There’s a train to Oslo leaving the station right now, and it needs a driver. How can you resist?