‘Beforeigners’ mashes up the buddy cop genre and sci-fi time travel | Features

One night in the Norwegian city of Oslo, strange flashes of light illuminate the bay from below. And then suddenly, living, breathing, freaked-out humans pop up out of the water, gasping for air, and completely unaware of how they got there or why.

Flash-forward a few years, and these watery arrivals have become a nightly occurrence, delivering people from three distinct historical periods into the present. These one-way time travelers — Stone Age primitives, Vikings from the Middle Ages and Victorians from the late 1800s — have been mysteriously (and unwillingly) blasted into the 21st century in the Norwegian series “Beforeigners,” a production of HBO Europe that was added to the HBO Max streaming service without much fanfare last year.

Not long ago, someone on my Twitter feed mentioned the show in passing, and my curiosity was piqued; I have a soft-spot for Scandinavian dramas and was intrigued by the conceptual twist undergirding the six-episode series. (A second season has wrapped filming, with a premiere date yet to be announced.)

A sci-fi buddy cop series, the show pairs a grizzled detective named Lars (Nicolai Cleve Broch) with an eager-to-impress Viking warrior named Alfhildr (Krista Kosonen), who just graduated from the police academy. She is the department’s first “time-igrant,” aka “beforeigner,” on the force. Together, they are tasked with investigating the murder of a woman they think might be from the Stone Age, a clue tipped off by her mouthful of tooth rot and prehistoric tattoos.

Lars is your quintessential loner, still nursing the wounds of his long-ago divorce — his wife has since remarried a man from the 19th century — and he wants nothing to do with his new partner at work. Alfhildr is smart and a quick study, and she’s just hoping to prove herself, despite being undermined and dismissed by her smirking colleagues, who see her as a token hire.

Though structured as a crime drama, the show has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and there’s something intriguing in the idea of people from different eras jostled together, some adapting better than others. The metaphors relating to racism and xenophobia and a host of other bigotries are obvious. Time-igrants are treated like displaced persons, refugees who are barely tolerated and given no real means of emotional or financial support from the state beyond their initial intake and quarantine. After that, they’re on their own. It’s not an easy assimilation for everyone. The Victorians, perhaps already accustomed to some of the architecture and the general framework of government, seem to fare the best. Either way, beforeigners are perpetual outsiders and subject to dirty looks, suspicion and much, much worse.

If the premise sounds familiar, a similar idea animates the 1988 film “Alien Nation,” about an alien race that lands on earth — aka Newcomers — who must assimilate and fit in amongst the humans. It stars James Caan as, yes, a grizzled cop recently paired with new hire, an alien detective played by Mandy Patinkin. (It was also adapted into TV series a year later, which ran for one season on Fox.) Newcomer or beforeigner, the basic idea is the same and it’s a decent framework that allows writers to tackle all kinds of knee-jerk prejudices in ways that underscore how irrational and arbitrary they really are.

Part of the fun with “Beforeigners” is the way series creators Eilif Skodvin and Anne Bjornstad (the duo behind Netflix’s “Lilyhammer”) play around with “what if” questions. When people date or marry across their native time period, it’s called a “multi-temporal” relationship. A small subset of modern people who prefer to live as Victorian Luddites form a “Born in the Wrong Millennium” support group.

Upon arrival in the present, beforeingers are initially given a drug that minimizes the sensory overload of the modern era. It’s only meant to be used temporarily, but of course non-beforeigners have gotten their hands on the drug as well. Lars is one of them. His addiction is barely kept in check, but Alfhildr clocks it immediately. She knows the signs. She knows the smell associated with the drug. But she’s too loyal to rat him out.

And so they team up, awkwardly at first, until their trust for one another grows as they investigate the case. Does it bug me that this story is told through the prism of law enforcement? Yes. Do I wish there was more time spent with time-igrants when they first arrive and then gradually adapt to their new surroundings? And learn an entirely new way of being? And come to grips with all our modern gadgets and technology and cultural norms? Yes, yes, yes.

“Beforeigners” is more interested in hewing to its procedural template than digging into what it means to live in an unfamiliar time period, but there are enough details here that keep it absorbing. A savvy Stone-Age-man-turned-ruthless-crime-boss still prefers to hunt rabbits in the nude and eat the meat raw. (He’s married to a modern woman, who has found fame blogging as “The Caveman’s Wife,” which is such a perfect toss-away joke.) The Viking chief Tore Hund (a real figure responsible for slaying the king of Norway, aka St. Olaf, in the year 1030) has little memory of his former life and lives quietly with a new wife and daughter. He makes his living delivering restaurant orders on his bike, until his true identity is revealed and he’s fired from his job and ostracized by the tabloid press.

I’m glad a second season is on the way, because there are some spoiler-y plot turns that suggest this time travel business might be more complicated than originally thought. The end of season one suggests that the distinction between beforeigners and the modern-born might not be as cut and dry as everyone assumed, raising the tantalizing possibility that some people have been transported across centuries more than once.

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