Today is Friday, which already makes it a very special day for watching TV. It’s not just any Friday, though.
Tonight is a night in which HOPES WILL BE SHATTERED and DREAMS WILL COME TRUE. Millions of impressionable Swedes will be hanging onto every word that comes out of two men’s mouths as four contestants battle it out to a bloody end.
There’s only one question on everyone’s mind: vart är vi på väg?! (What is our destination?)
As you can clearly see, the contestants sit in two train cars, first and second class.
I know, I know. Word has undoubtedly spread about one of Sweden’s most beloved television programs, a geography-focused game show in which teams of two compete against each other while sitting in different train cars, first and second class. Of course you know about På Spåret, or “On Track.”
Here are the basics: a 23.5 year old game show featuring Swedish quasi-celebrities and persons of note airs every year from mid-Winter to early Spring. The contest takes place over 13 episodes as the teams compete in a bracket-style tournament, complete with quarterfinals, semifinals, and now, finally, the final.
Fredrik Lindström and Kristian Luuk (left to right) are the judge and the host of På Spåret, respectively.
During the competition, the contestants are shown footage of a moving landscape shot from a train as it travels from one city to another. The host gives them clues about where they’re going using puns, historical references, and sometimes just plain trickery, and as the journey continues, the hints become clearer and the number of points the contestants can win decreases.
The scenario is a little surreal, actually.
I think that the best way to describe it is as though you were reading a science fiction book, and then something happened in another dimension and suddenly your kooky high school history teacher (you know, the one who knew something about everything) joined brains and bodies with your dad (whose sense of humor tends to be quite, well, cheesy) and then this new history-teacher-plus-dad phantasm got a little tipsy and decided to write clues for a game show.
And also the phantasm spoke Swedish. This is all very clear to you, right?
Have epiphany, will pull emergency brake (the red thing that says nödbroms). When you know the answer to a question, you pull the brakes, and the train stops. Here, Ylva Hällen & Anna Charlotta Gunnarson make their move. In the bottom half of the screen, you can see a typical example of the "view" from the "train." It's quite helpful.
Once the train arrives at its destination, there are a series of questions related to the city.
These questions could have to do with local food, music, architecture, famous inhabitants, sports, current events, or basically anything else that can be even remotely connected to the location. Each episode has three destinations, two international and one Swedish.
In between, you have musical guests who sing with the house band, The Augusti Family. The most important thing to know about them seems to be that they are, according to På Spåret’s website, “ONE OF SWEDEN’S HOTTEST BANDS.”
So there you have it.
Then there’s a question in which a video montage of photos and music is played, and the combination of the images should call to mind one well known person. My crowning moment as a På Spåret enthusiast came during this segment, when they paired a drawing of a banana with a Velvet Underground song. Andy Warhol, duh!
I really love På Spåret, and not just because it’s one of the few arenas in which I can really feel the return on investment for my very expensive liberal arts education. (That and quiz nights… I’m transforming my obscure knowledge into free French Fries one pub at a time.)
I love this show because it somehow seems like a relic from a bygone TV era, and yet, amazingly, it’s still popular. It’s no longer in its heyday, but still, a substantial percentage of Swedes tune in every week to watch people try to answer what are actually very difficult questions.
There are many differences between Swedish and American men. A love of bold colors and a side part are just two characteristics that would distinguish På Spåret judge, Fredrik Lindström, from the average American specimen.
Equally amazing is that the producers have clearly resisted the urge to modernize, as the show seems to have just about the same level of technological flash and pow as were available in 1987, when the show aired its first season. They haven’t changed the basic premise of the show (geography, of all things!), and they haven’t done anything gimmicky, like allow the audience to vote for contestants or make the contestants eat worms or something like that.
If it were the United States, the hour of well-mannered, friendly banter would have been overtaken by flashing lights, an irresistibly catchy theme song, and hosted by former A-list celebrities in search of career rejuvenation… at the very least. In short, the whole thing would be destroyed.
Instead of all the razzle-dazzle, you have a show tailored for the well-traveled, broadly educated savant. Simple format, no special effects; just geography and all the things that go along with that.
Frankly, it’s a kind of testament to the Swedish people and how open, interested, and knowledgeable they are about the outside world. It’s also a testament to a delightful, old school nerdiness. Both of which I like.
Interested in more? Watch På Spåret on SVT Play.