Ágætis Byrjun: Cloud of Ash, Raining Tourists

The merits of eating whale meat, Israeli-Palestine policies and whether the Vikings ate mushrooms. These are just a few of the things the two protagonists of new web comedy serial Cloud of Ash—hipster extrovert Atli and grumpy introvert Brogan—debate while working in one of Reykjavík‘s many puffin stores (the colloquial Icelandic term for tourist shops).

As puffin stores spread like wildfire across the island, Icelandic webisodes like Cloud of Ash are few and far between. A few acting students made an extremely low-budget take on the format a few years back (which mostly involved them acting silly in front of a web cam), while on the other end of the scale established film director Ólafur de Fleur directed Circledrawers in 2009, a more serious production about a group angels from the lowest ranks of the angelic race, the janitors to your archangels.

Cloud of Ash falls somewhere in between. It is clearly made on a shoestring budget, yet the episodes boast proper locations and surprisingly good production values. The set-up plays on perhaps the most vivid changes to affect Reykjavík’s cultural landscape of late—the tourism boom of the last six years, rooted in the post-collapse devaluation of the Icelandic króna (with the real explosion coming in the aftermath of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, hence Cloud of Ash).

As I’ve been conditioned to think sitcom episodes should be a little over twenty minutes you would expect an eight episode series to be about as long as two feature films. However, the internet doesn‘t make such demands, so every instalment clocks in at only three minutes or so. This means you can easily take the time to watch it and come back and finish this review in less than half an hour.

Is it any good?

Frankly, it doesn‘t start well. The set-up is mildly intriguing but the first two episodes are rather wooden and clunky, despite one pretty good joke that demonstrates the show’s potential.

By the third episode, things slowly start coming together. There are a few reasons for this—but the most obvious one is that by the third episode, leading actor Atli Bollason has started to grow into his character. Or maybe he’s playing himself throughout, and has just started to feel at ease with the camera? The illusion that he and Brogan Davison are playing fictionalized versions of themselves is re-enforced by the fact the show uses their real-names, and Atli certainly emits the kind of pseudo-hipster persona you would expect from someone who penned “Confessions of a Hipster” for this very magazine.

The third episode shows Atli flirting with a pretty Israeli girl, ultimately unable to resist giving his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The scene’s level of sheer awkwardness evokes The Office, and there are a few more scenes in later episodes that reach similar levels of awkwardness—incidentally they are some of the series’ best moments. The series also brings to mind another British sitcom classic, Black Books. This is perhaps because the eternally grumpy Bernard Black’s hate for paying customers is mirrored by the equally grumpy Brogan. However, this comparison is less flattering, because while Davison is a capable actress, she is not allowed room to build the charm and quirkiness that made Bernard so interesting.

Minke whales and German hipsters

The standout episode of the series, the one slowly going viral, is certainly the “animal-racism” one (although they missed a golden opportunity to use the under-used term “speciesism”). Yes, it’s about whaling, obviously. The deliciously tasty minke whale, to be precise. Close on its heels are the aforementioned third episode with the Israeli girl, and an episode where an über-hipster German tourist manages the unthinkable, to out-hipster Atli Bollason himself.

Both the Israeli girl and the German hipster are played by Icelandic actors, as are many—but not all—of the tourists. The foreigners are generally well cast, and you usually buy them as foreigners. However, the almost total lack of spoken Icelandic in the series doesn’t feel too convincing. Meanwhile, the tourism boom has brought a whole minefield of possible racism, a minefield that the show navigates well, avoiding most, if not all, of the potential pitfalls. This can perhaps be attributed to the jokes being varied and avoiding generalizations, thus avoiding lumping every foreigner together, depicting them as individuals rather than a homogenous group.

The last episode strikes a totally different chord as Brogan’s grumpiness evolves into full-blown sadness. This instalment manages to humanize the characters, making us care for them.

It’s a good one, but I do have some conflicting views on its placement at the end of the series. An earlier placement would perhaps have enriched what follows (and if you haven’t watched the series yet it could be an interesting experiment, there are no reasons, plot-wise, to watch Cloud of Ash in a linear fashion)—the comedy might work better if we were already rooting for the characters.

At the same time, it left me wanting more—and coupled with the fact the show grew as it evolved, I would actually love to see another season, despite all the problems with the first one. Because it’s really building up to something truly interesting.

Ideally, Cloud of Ash should serve as the kick-start Icelandic webisodes need—because there are plenty of people out there that might do something really interesting but are never going to be granted entry by the gatekeepers of the commercial TV stations.

The internet is out there—it’s time to take advantage of it.

Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on April 14th 2015.

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