Marius Arnesen/NRK

Norwegian television has come up with yet another radical concept.

Norwegian television has come up with yet another radical concept in reality TV: celebrity funerals. Kisten ("The Coffin"), a TV show from broadcaster NRK that’s currently screening in Oslo and other major media markets in Norway, asks celebrities to prepare their own burial for the benefit of the cameras. The stars don’t actually get buried, of course. The show acts instead as a dry run for the big day, giving its subjects a chance to decorate their own casket, pick a funeral playlist, and reflect on their lives and beliefs. The big names featured in the show won’t be familiar to an international audience, however—Kisten’s first star was a 50-year-old singer called Bjarne Brøndbo, whose folk rock hits with the band DDR include the song "My Butt."

If it sounds bizarre, well, it is—but following the country’s recent primetime smash featuring a 24/7 stream of a bird box, Norway currently seems to be having a competition with itself to create the world’s weirdest TV. The surprising thing about the potentially ghoulish Kisten, however, is that it’s actually quite affecting. 

Indeed, looking at the clips of Kisten available online, they show how refreshingly off-guard people can be in small countries where local celebrities operate within narrow limits—both on their fame and on the potential damage a bit of unscripted honesty could do their careers. I suspect plenty of people are, like me, tired of listening to carefully coached celebrities blather inanely about how they feel "blessed." If we actually saw someone like Gwyneth Paltrow on TV telling us frankly—as Brøndbo does—that she was terrified of death but had neither a belief nor a wish to believe in an afterlife, we might just warm to her more.

The show is also very Norwegian. While international hit Big Brother couldn’t have made its Orwellian inspiration any clearer, and Survivor channeled William Golding, there’s something unmistakably Ibsen-esque about Kisten’s modesty, sobriety and seriousness. Pardon the easy cliché, but I’m not sure how else you could describe a reality show that features a man doodling on a coffin before mumbling a folk song about last year’s roses.

There’s clearly something interesting going on in Norwegian television, as the country has a period of self-questioning about what popular programing can be. Apparently some Norwegians have decided that the answer might be footage of a mid-ranking, middle-aged celebrity standing in a chilly warehouse writing his mother’s name on a plywood casket. Are they wrong? I surprise myself by saying this, but I don’t think they are.

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