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New take on reality TV: Norwegian show puts Americans through challenges as they discover the land of their ancestors

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Sunday, December 12, 2010 - 12:01 am

NEW YORK — Grant Aaseng lives a quiet life as a Lutheran minister in Alexandria, Minn. He's no celebrity.

Yet the last time he was in Oslo, Norway, the ticket takers and security agents at the airport all recognized him. Children would point him out to parents and say, “Isn't he the guy from TV?” More than 400 Norwegian strangers asked to be his friend on Facebook.

Aaseng's Norwegian fame came from his role as a contestant on “The Great Norway Adventure,” a reality show in that country that features Americans who travel to the Nordic nation to compete in good-natured games for a cash prize and the chance to meet ancestors they'd never known.

“It was amazing,” Aaseng said. “It exceeded all expectations.”

The first version of the show had one of TVNorge's best premiere ratings in 20 years and went on to be a solid hit, said Jerle Nakken, the network's programming chief. The show is now working with a Chicago casting company to find contestants for Round Two. The requirements: Be an American of Norwegian descent who has never traveled to Norway and can take a month away for an adventure.

It is simple fish-out-of-water TV. The show's initial eight contestants were treated to a traditional Norwegian meal that included a porridge one man said “kind of tastes like the glue I used to eat.” They sang the Norwegian national anthem before an audience. They competed on Viking fishing boats, tried to herd cows, raced tractors and went cross-country skiing.

One of the oddest episodes replicated the russefeiring, a Norwegian tradition where high school graduates mark a rite of passage by renting buses for a couple of weeks of rowdy behavior.

“We're not very proud of that tradition,” Nakken said. “But in order to become an adult in Norway, that's something you have to go through.”

That caused a few awkward moments for Aaseng. He succeeded in the challenge of drinking beer while simultaneously urinating (filmed from behind), but balked at the direction to “make out” with another man. The rules on the latter were loose: Judges accepted a quick tongue touch by two nervous women.

Aaseng admitted to concern about how his congregation would react to the show, but “they thought it brought me down to Earth,” he said. “People liked it.”

His most moving moment came during a bus ride north of Lillehammer, when a production staffer told Aaseng that that was the area from which his ancestors had come.

“That hit me harder than I thought,” he said, “to think that somewhere back you had a family that lived on that place on Earth,” said the 54-year-old.

Aaseng savored his newfound, if brief, brush with Norwegian fame. He had a return trip to the country while the show was airing because Norway's genealogical society wanted him to do publicity for them. Norway, he said, “lived up to its billing of being a gorgeous place.”

Aaseng didn't win the competition, tripped up by a strenuous challenge digging something out of the snow. The first season's winner was Doug Miner of Seattle.

Norwegian television viewers are used to watching American-produced TV shows and emulating Americans, Nakken said. It resonated with many to watch Americans trying to act like Norwegians, he said.

“Norwegians are very proud of their country and their culture,” he said. “It's an old country and culture, and we feel we have a lot to offer. Through the Americans we see our culture through new eyes and that makes us very proud.”

David O'Connor, who runs the American casting company that bears his name and worked on the series, confessed that he thought it was a prank when he was first reached by e-mail about it. It turned out to be one of the best projects of his professional life, he said.

The show has none of the meanness or cutthroat competition that many American-based reality programs have, he said. There's a cash prize, yes, but the experience of seeing a homeland is, for many contestants, a prize in itself. Going to Norway had always been on Aaseng's “bucket list.”

“If it was Ireland, I'd love to apply myself,” O'Connor said.

The show's format makes it easy to set up in just about any country with a large number of emigres to the United States. Producers are already working on a Swedish show.

Potential contestants are urged to be creative in filming a brief video about themselves that will put their personalities on display; Aaseng, encouraged by his daughter, was filmed singing a Norwegian holiday song and cross-country skiing to a Viking statue in his town.

The next edition in Norway expands to 10 contestants.