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Political Thriller Series 'Occupied' Parallels Russia's Actions In Ukraine


Lately I have been obsessed with a Norwegian show on Netflix. It's called "Occupied."


SHAPIRO: "Occupied" is a political drama. I recently spoke with the co-creator, Erik Skjoldbjaerg.

ERIK SKJOLDBJAERG: The premise is what if Norway was occupied in what we call a silk occupation? There isn't a military presence in the streets or anything. It's more obviously a change in our politics. And what would you do as a citizen in a democracy if your rights were sort of at risk?

SHAPIRO: Quick plot summary - Norway's environmentalist prime minister cuts off the country's oil production. Russia shows up and says, we'll help you produce oil. And the rest of Europe says, yeah, we would like that. Do what Russia says. The question is, how would Norwegians react to this silk occupation? Skjoldbjaerg told me he had struggled with this question before he created the show.

SKJOLDBJAERG: I had from time to time, you know, when I spoke with my granddad, who was participating in the Second World War. And I thought, I'm not sure I would have been in the front line because you tend to think about what's close to you and what's valuable to you. And that's family, jobs, status, economy, all these things, which at that time, when you're asked the question of when you have to make a decision, actually may seem more valuable to you.

SHAPIRO: I reported from eastern Ukraine in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists were trying to exert control there. And of course when I watched this show I thought, oh well, it's just a reinterpretation of what happened in Ukraine. And then I found out you started filming this show - you wrote the first episodes before Russia took any actions in Ukraine at all?

SKJOLDBJAERG: Yeah, that's correct. We started shooting the same day as the conflict happened.

SHAPIRO: And what was that day like for you?

SKJOLDBJAERG: I don't know how to say it. It felt sort of slightly unreal, that's for sure. And it kind of reminded me that, you know, we're doing fiction. And I thought, I'll just focus on the fiction part of this because that's what we have to maintain that it is.

SHAPIRO: How do you focus on the fiction when you pick up a newspaper and the headline on the front page is what you've written your fictional story about?

SKJOLDBJAERG: Well, any kind of good fiction feeds off the reality of some situation. In fact we were looking at a number of different conflicts. One was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. You know, so the blueprint was there beforehand.

SHAPIRO: Moscow is not amused. The Russian government actually put out a statement. And part of it says that you and the other co-creators, quote, "decided in the worst traditions of the Cold War to scare Norwegian spectators with the non-existent threat from the East." How do you react to that?

SKJOLDBJAERG: In a sense that's the most predictable reaction we've had...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SKJOLDBJAERG: ...On "Occupied." So, I mean, these are government officials who are doing their jobs. It's...

SHAPIRO: Is it their job to respond to a fictional television show?

SKJOLDBJAERG: It's their job to defend the government's policies. And if they feel like we are threatening their policies then that's what they probably feel the need to do. I think it doesn't hurt us. You know, we're creating fiction. And the vast majority of people in Russia and in any other country knows the difference between fiction and reality.

SHAPIRO: You know, the show has such a range of characters, from the judge to the restaurant owner to the bodyguard to the politician and the journalist. And they each respond differently to this occupation. Is there one that you particularly identify with, that you think, yeah, that's who I would be, that's what I would do?

SKJOLDBJAERG: Actually it keeps changing. The - I thought I was going to identify most with the bodyguard who sort of tends to go along with the politics, you know, and go along with the occupation. But the prime minister - the further it went along I felt more and more sort of close to what he was going through in a sense and how you deal with it.

I must say I like all these characters, but that's part of what I really like about a good drama is that if you can make characters who are both attractive and sort of interesting and then yet they might shock me in some ways. I think the element of the unexpected is important. There is twists and turns to the political situation, which was important. But it's also interesting to have characters who feel caught between different interests. So, you know - so you don't know for sure what they're going to do next.

SHAPIRO: Erik Skjoldbjaerg is one of the creators of the show "Occupied," which is now on Netflix. Thank you for the conversation and for the TV show. I enjoyed both of them very much.

SKJOLDBJAERG: Thank you. It was a pleasure to speak with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.