NBC is rolling the dice on an idea that not only has long odds, it has the potential to alienate a large portion of the target demographic. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds, because the alienation only comes by way of a potential nepotism backlash, and the public is somewhat immune to paying attention to such things, unless someone stirs them up about it.
Welcome to Sweden is a sit-com that is ostensibly based on Greg Poehler’s real experience as a New Yorker who moves to Sweden to live with his girlfriend. Because his sister, Amy, makes several cameo appearances in the show, there’s every chance that the “the way to get a sit-com is to wait until your sister gets one…,” theory might not sit well with some audiences. Audiences are picky bastards, and are made up of members who figure they have a show idea or two, and isn’t it too bad they don’t have a famous sister – Click.
But, the show is anything but a sure bet anyway, because the style of comedy, and the general aura the show gives off is decidedly British. Or, possibly European. Or, at least not exactly American. As Anglophiles have become increasingly familiar with the attempts to remake shows in America, there is a sense in which this show could easily undergo a similar “Americanization,” which clearly means it doesn’t fit in with the recognized landscape.
Of course, that’s all to the good in my estimation, and the show is a surprisingly solid winner, but it’s going to need more than just my vote to stick around, and “really British-feeling” shows are not a tested commodity on major networks. Still, it may be about time to test the waters, especially with how well such shows have performed on BBC America, PBS, and elsewhere, but NBC is going to want better numbers.
Bruce (Poehler) and Emma (Josephine Bornebusch) are making the big move, and Greg isn’t just leaving the U.S., he’s leaving his job as an accountant to the stars. He isn’t just leaving that job, he doesn’t want to go back to anything related to it, focusing instead on getting his Sweden on, and adopting the zen of Say Anything by way of, “spending as much time as I can with your daughter.”
The comedy and plot progression comes, as you’d expect, from a combination of Greg’s efforts to integrate into Swedish society, and Emma’s family. Emma’s mother (Lena Olin) and father (Claes Månsson) serve as the main sticking points of fitting into another country’s ideas of how things work, but also a more general in-law attitude. The natural problems arise, including the in-laws not understanding quitting your lucrative career to “find yourself” while crashing with our daughter, and the standard problems of sex while staying at the in-laws house until your apartment is ready.
The show also, for those very familiar with non-American comedies, feels for all the world like a strange mash of Doc Martin and the Netflix original Lilyhammer. From the “strange locals,” to the effort in, and new friends from, language classes, Welcome to Sweden borrows the situational plot points, the slow style of awkward comedy, and the overall texture of both shows.
When these elements aren’t quite enough, Welcome to Sweden throws in a client who tracks down Bruce (like Gene Simmons, or Will Ferrell), or sends Aubrey Plaza to Sweden to find Bruce and convince him to come back.
All of this is crushed together with the expected difficulties inherent in taking a relationship to a new country, especially considering that this couple apparently hasn’t done a lot of relationship work of the living together variety. The familiar, “Who’s stuff goes?” is obviously going to pop up, but nothing is quite standard when you also have to convince immigration that you’re really a couple.
With all of this going on, and no real effort at the sort of comedy that is going to make you laugh out loud, the best the show can hope for is fun, and that you’re willing to follow along. Unfortunately, that means that the show needs to be around long enough for you to care about the characters more than the next zinger (which won’t show up), and it can be tricky for such shows to last long enough to really hook you. You should stick around for this one though, because once you get in a few episodes, you’re going to fall hard. Even if there feels like a lot of that which is generally familiar at play, this is a fresh take, and a more honest one than you’re used to getting from network television.
At times, Bruce and Emma barely act like they like each other, and as often as not it seems that Emma is mostly putting up with him. That’s a different view to throw out in a show about a couple willing to move to another country together, especially for a light comedy, and more impressively, the show never really deals with the idea. This is her. This is them. Other notes will clue you in to how they fit together, and if it doesn’t seem to make sense, that’s how couples work.
The supporting cast, which again feels like we’re making the rounds of Lilyhammer, is solid, and just odd enough, and the fact that Poehler’s Bruce (which is akin to a Greg Kinnear impression) can’t seem to get a break from a new problem showing up works for the run we’re on.
The show has a lot of balls to keep in the air at once, because if we don’t run into a cultural clash for too long it will seem like we’re wasting our gimmick, but if we go too long without digging into the relationship, we’ll lose interest. It manages this surprisingly well, without settling into a rhythm, and the result is a balance and subtlety that’s uncommon to say the least. Most surprising, the show feels like it’s confident in itself, without being cocky, and since it has no real right to be on a genre front, it makes for a comfortable viewing.
None of this probably sounds like high praise, but the show is so fun, and appeals for your investment with so much pluck and charm, that it doesn’t aim for the sort of things that usually result in hyperbolic sound bites. It’s content to just have you talking about it tomorrow, and looking forward to more. That, in itself, is part of the sell of a lot of British comedies, and it’d be nice if there were more series here that were just trying to be good.