Director: Ragnar Bragason
Næturvaktin is a very pleasant surprise indeed. 99% of the world’s sitcoms seem like Xeroxed updates of shows that were pretty dull back in the Seventies or, almost as bad, are progressive thinking in concept but rely on the same base attributes of canned laughter, implausible set pieces and plain banality.
Therefore, how will a relatively low budget comedy from Iceland – a nation that seems to have its own very distinctive sense of humour – fare?
The basic premise feels like a rough hybrid of Ricky Gervais’ The Office with Clerks. It revolves around the every day (well, night) antics of a disparate collection of Shell petrol station employees. Georg (series co-writer Jon Gnarr) is the station’s dictatorial superviser whose left-leaning politics and overly pedantic management style causes much strife to colleagues and customers alike. Despite his evident education, Georg’s academia has failed to translate to efficient business management.
The bulk of Georg’s domination falls heavily on the shoulders of Olafur (Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon). Olafur isn’t the brightest or most dedicated of employees yet he has big dreams; most notably to take the local band that he “manages” to international stardom.
Completing this motley crue of minor misfits is Daniel (Jörundur Ragnarsson). Capable, personable and quick to learn, he’s the best of a dubious bunch but why exactly is he working there? An estranged girlfriend and a disapproving family suggest a bigger story…
On first impressions, Næturvaktin is almost too uneventful to work as a comedy. Little happens and when it does it happens slowly, with the station’s lack of custom matched only by the inactively of its staff. The dull buzz of the shop’s strip lighting dominates the still atmosphere. Barely a single scene across all twelve episodes escapes the triumvirate of regular sets; the forecourt, the shop, the back office.
And yet slowly it somehow works. It’s not generic comedy by any stretch yet neither does it push conventional boundaries. The average episode starts with a philosophical quote and builds into a succession of low key scenes. Thankfully elements of the narrative gradually interweave to create that ominous, dreaded sense that something farcical is about to happen – better still, it’s usually crafted with enough skill to provoke surprise rather than ignite disdain at its sheer predictability.
As with any great comedy, the strength of the secondary characters is almost as vital as the strength of the leads. Georg’s ex-wife and son, for example, both feel like full rounded characters rather than mere tools utilised to accentuate Georg’s curmudgeonly nature. Throughout the series the sense of characterisation is acutely constructed with each role a stereotype delicately crafted into an individuality that builds a palpable feeling of reality.
Naeturvaktin issues are minor and indeed barely noticeable. The celebrity cameos are unlikely to mean anything to an international audience and Georg’s make-up isn’t entirely convincing – although admittedly Gnarr is a good ten years younger than Georg. Consequently they fail to distract from a series less like the preconception of a Clerks / Office hybrid and more like a clash between the social inadequacy of Peep Show and the master crafted narrative of Fawlty Towers.
And just like Jar City, Næturvaktin has been picked up for the American remake treatment.
Næturvaktin / Night Shift can be purchased online at Nammi.
“I have five college degrees!”