We live in a Golden Age of international relations programming on television. The proliferation of so many platforms has meant that there are now great shows that tackle the eternal dilemmas of world politics in metaphorical worlds, past metaphorical worlds, and the world we live in right now.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts are huge fans of the FX show “The Americans” and eagerly awaiting its fourth season. But until then, I would strongly recommend that you go to Netflix and binge-watch a Norwegian import, conceived by writer Jo Nesbø, called “Occupied.”
“Occupied” occupies the same fictional space as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men,” in that it starts with a somewhat absurd premise. Once you buy the premise, it creates a compelling and true world.
“Occupied’s” premise: In the near future, the U.S. becomes self-sufficient in energy, and therefore withdraws from Europe. Civil wars in the Gulf states create an energy crisis in the European Union. And at this exact moment, Norway elects a new Green government dedicated to ending the country’s reliance on hydrocarbons. Despite diplomatic entreaties, the new Norwegian prime minister, Jesper Berg, continues with his party’s intentions of shutting down all oil production. As a result, the E.U. and Russia work out an “arrangement” behind Berg’s back for Russia to seize Norway’s offshore oil platforms.
Absurd? Yes, at least with respect to U.S. self-sufficiency in energy. But the show was gripping enough when it aired in Norway last fall for the Russian ambassador in Oslo to protest its airing.
All of this takes place in the first two-thirds of the pilot episode — it’s what happens next that makes “Occupied” so good. The show traces the fallout from this decision over the next 10 months or so on an array of characters. How does Berg react to great power pressure? How do individual officials in the government cope with cooperating with the Russians? What are the effects of a (mostly) bloodless violation of Norwegian sovereignty on the society writ large?
For an American audience, two things make “Occupied” truly unusual. The first is that it has some savvy plotlines about the political economy of collaboration. One character, on the brink of bankruptcy, finds a new lease on her professional life because of the influx of Russian money. Another finds himself promoted at work because of his competence at rooting out threats to Russians. The effects of these changes on the characters themselves, and their identities, are perfectly paced.
The second thing that makes “Occupied” stand out is that it’s really a show about how a small state copes in a world in which it has less control than it thought it did. This is an alien concept to Americans quite comfortable with their great power status. In the world of “Occupied,” however, Norway as a non-E.U. member and without U.S. security support finds itself with more constrained options. In some ways, the travails of Jesper Berg are the best fictional equivalent to what Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras faced in Greece in his negotiations with the Eurogroup. And without offering up any spoilers, let’s just say that the parallels between what Berg decides to do and what Tsipras did last summer have some strong parallels.
At less than 10 hours, with a fair amount of English dialogue, “Occupied” is the perfect binge-watch for world politics enthusiasts during a late winter weekend. Check it out.