41 minutes and 57 seconds into Bergensbanen minutt for minutt, an uninterrupted rail journey across southern Norway (and public broadcaster NRK’s first slow TV experiment), the train enters a tunnel and everything goes dark. It’s an interesting experience: we’ve gone through tunnels and waited at stations before, nothing too boring, so (we think) surely this tunnel will end sooner rather than later. Two minutes go by, then four, then five. We finally emerge from the tunnel after six minutes and twelve seconds of train sounds and no visual stimulation to speak of.
Bergensbanen, I argue, leverages viewers’ (likely, periodic) experiences of boredom to create a site of potential storytelling. Over the course of the seven-hour, fifteen-minute run from Bergen to Oslo, we are occasionally plunged into darkness, typically only for a minute or two, between long stretches of beautiful Norwegian scenery. This program is a prime example of a text with weak narrativity: the uneventful train journey seems to “evoke narrative coherence” (McHale 165) — there are vague events, minor characters — but doesn’t present a stable narrative; rather, slow TV programs tap into a comforting boredom over the hours-long runtime, encouraging viewers to spin their own stories out of threadbare blueprints.
Slow TV presents a narrative-like experience but doesn’t provide much in terms of the “blueprints” (Herman 2009) that help us create worlds out of words — characters, events, conflict. Instead, Bergensbanen offers myriad instances of “situative boredom, as when one is waiting for someone, is listening to a lecture, or taking the train” (Svendsen 41). Some instances of boredom in slow TV are concentrated (enduring minutes of darkness while the train moves through a tunnel), while others are dispersed (relative eventlessness over the course of seven-plus hours).
Past studies have tended to view boredom in literature as an evaluative measure, framing it as an experience that “a successful literary act manages to avoid” (Hägg 76), rather than a strategy in itself. More recently, the narratologist Samuli Hägg argues that boredom is “a narrative function with aesthetic and interpretive ramifications” (77), which is what seems to be happening with slow TV: long broadcasts of mundane, repetitive actions, providing a frame into which readers can imagine. Insofar as these programs are readily interpretable, they seem to encourage relatability and association; Bergensbanen doesn’t attempt to tell a story, but it potentially contains any number of stories.
Hägg, Samuli. “Pynchon’s Poetics of Boredom: Cognitive and Textual Aspects of Novelistic Dreariness.” Narrative, Interrupted: The Plotless, the Disturbing, and the Trivial in Literature. Markku Lehtimäki, Laura Karttunen, Maria Mäkelä (eds.). Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012. 75-90.
Herman, David. Basic Elements of Narrative. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
McHale, Brian. “Weak Narrativity: The Case of Avant-Garde Narrative Poetry.” Narrative 9(2): 2001. 161-167.
Svendsen, Lars. A Philosophy of Boredom. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.
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