Comedy meets Dostoevsky in this half-hour series from HBO Europe about a child psychologist and his dysfunctional family.
If you were to design the perfect embodiment of the modern Swedish man, you'd probably end up with someone like Gosta.
Gosta, a child psychologist who moves from the city to the idyllic countryside for his first job, is the titular hero of HBO Europe's new Swedish TV series. Sensitive, caring, selfless and excruciatingly politically correct, he is the Nordic social welfare state made flesh.
In the very first episode, viewers see Gosta buy food for the homeless, tend to the Syrian refugee he's put up in his house and help out the drug addict who tries to steal his bicycle by offering him a ride home. (When the addict's thug friends make trouble, Gosta avoids a fight by willingly giving them his bicycle).
Up-and-coming actor Vilhelm Blomgren — whose supporting turn in Ari Aster's horror film Midsommer provides a very different view of the idyllic Swedish countryside — plays Gosta as almost preternaturally patient and calm. As a child psychologist to depressed kids he's dedicated but nonjudgmental. As a boyfriend he's generous and giving —how many significant others would take a break from their morning commute to oblige their needy girlfriend's demand for a quick dick pic? —and as a son tireless and forgiving. When his alcoholic, curmudgeonly father asks to move in with him, Gosta can't say no.
“Gosta is a little map of Sweden, almost an allegory,” says Regina Lund, who plays the lead character's mother in the series and who compares the show to Ingmar Bergman's iconic existential drama The Seventh Seal — if funnier. “This series is very, very Swedish. If you want to get a piece of what it is to be Sweden, watch this show.”
Gosta is HBO's attempt to become very Swedish while remaining very much HBO. The 12-part dramedy — written and directed by acclaimed art house filmmaker Lukas Moodysson (Show Me Love, Together) — is the first original Scandinavian series produced in-house by HBO Nordic, the stand-alone SVOD service HBO Europe launched in 2012.
HBO has three Scandinavian originals in the works. Norwegian sci-fi satire Beforeigners — about a flood of “refugees” who turn out to be time travelers from the past — premieres in August. Beartown, an eight-part drama based on the novel of the same name by Swedish author Fredrik Backman (A Man Called Ove) goes out on HBO Nordic later this year.
HBO's northern push comes amid a flurry of activity in the Nordic television industry. Netflix has several Scandinavian series up and running — including Danish postapocalyptic drama The Rain and Swedish crime thriller Quicksand — and it feels like local SVOD group Viaplay (Swedish Dicks, Occupied, The Lawyer) greenlights a new original every month. HBO, in contrast, is being extremely selective for its Nordic service, well aware that its shows need to stand out in a crowded market.
“We see our advantage very much in being curators, especially in Scandinavia where there's is a lot of competition,” says Antony Root, vp original programing and production at HBO Europe. “And any Scandinavian show we do has to look like it belongs on the service right alongside the likes of Game of Thrones or Westworld, any of our big American shows.”
This careful, curated approach won HBO Europe critical acclaim — as well as local subscribers — for its original series in Eastern Europe, dramas such The Pact (Poland), Umbra (Romania) and Wasteland (Czech Republic).
But when it comes to high-end drama, Eastern Europe was virgin territory, with little in the way of competition in markets dominated by soaps and cheap local-language sitcoms. That's not the case up north, where viewers of The Killing, Wallander, Borgen or The Bridge are used to top-drawer drama served up in their own language.
“The bar is set very high,” admits Hanne Palmquist, commissioning editor and vp original programming for HBO Nordic. “But we think we can compete by offering something a little different.”
Different like Gosta. It's fair to say there is nothing quite like Moodysson's series on TV right now. The director calls the show “a mix of comedy and Dostoevsky” and it fits. Deadpan humor sits alongside frank discussions of depression, anxiety and social ills. A suicide attempt is followed by slapstick. And even the ideal Swedish man, in the form of Blomgren's character, Gosta, can grate.
“When we were shooting, I really loved Gosta. He's how I think we all should be; how we all should try and behave,” Blomgren says. “But when I watched the series, I was so annoyed with him. He is always helping someone but because he helps one person he lets another one down. He just can't help everyone.”
“He is a bit like how Sweden wishes it could be,” adds Mattias Silvell, who plays Gosta's father in the series. “But it also shows the underside of that. I think we Swedes are more nasty than we admit.”
Moodysson can be nasty, too, in a funny way. Scenes with Gosta's friend, and would-be social justice warrior Jonas, are eviscerating. At one point, Jonas asks an obviously traumatized war refugee to tell him their story so he, Jonas, can turn it into a pop song.
“It's a bit painful to watch,” admits Gustav Berg, who plays Jonas. “He's completely genuine but utterly un-self- aware.”
HBO Europe is very aware of what it wants to do up north. Despite increased competition from Netflix, Viaplay and the raft of soon-to-be-launched SVOD services including Disney + and Apple TV+ — the company that invented golden age of TV is determined to do just a few Scandinavian series. But to do them right.
“There is a huge opportunity right now and there is a huge demand for Nordic talent,” says Palmquist. “But we shouldn't forget how we got here. It was through quality, not quantity. And quality takes time.”
Gosta premieres across HBO Europe on Monday, July 1.