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The biggest hurdle facing NBC’s new comedy Welcome to Sweden is whether or not Americans are willing to read. The series, created by Greg Poehler (brother of Amy, and based on his experiences) follows New York accountant Bruce (Poehler) as he takes a leap of love, moving to Sweden to live with his girlfriend, Emma (Josephine Bornebusch). But one of the show’s many charms is how Emma and her family — and essentially everyone else — drift in and out of speaking Swedish.
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Some series, like FX’s The Americans, have allowed foreign characters to speak in their native language in order to illustrate the realistic differences and barriers in communication and nationalities. On The Americans, though, the scenes are usually clearly delineated — it’s rare for characters to switch back and forth between English and Russian at length in the same scene. On the other end of the spectrum, another FX series, Tyrant, made the (somewhat controversial) choice to have all of its characters speak English, just with heavy accents to denote “otherness.” The American family on that show might be fish out of water, but language-wise, you’d never know it.
Welcome to Sweden‘s decision to come in and out of subtitle use, sometimes mid-dialogue, is a bold one. It creates a viewing experience that requires active watching. The show is laden with jokes, but they’re often subtle. Taking its time, it builds its humor in each episode, and is self-referential with sight gags (like a small red wooden horse that appears in the background of every new location) as well as capitalizing on Bruce’s discomfort in his new home. To keep up is demanding, but worse is to miss any of the great humor.
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The show is well worth any extra effort to watch, though. It’s immediately warm and intimate, as Bruce and Emma land in Stockholm and are taken to her parents’ summer house where the couple will live for a few weeks before moving into their apartment. The family is reliably quirky, but refreshingly not over-the-top: there’s a kind, quiet father Birger (Claes Mansson), a critical mother, Viveka (Lena Olin), a sloppy brother in a stunted adolescence (Gustaf, played by Christopher Wagelin) and an America-obsessed uncle, Bengt (Per Svensson).
Each contributes to the show’s humor in distinct ways, but one of the best running jokes is Viveka’s disappointment with Bruce’s height (or lack thereof, compared with Swedish men). When Emma tries to reassure her mother he’s average, she replies, “He’s average if you include Asian people and children.” Later, Emma recounts the first time she saw Bruce, “from across the room.” “He must have been standing on a chair,” Viveka mutters.
The fish-out-of-water premise of Welcome to Sweden may be a familiar launch pad on which to build a comedy series, but very little of the show feels familiar. The episodes are beautifully directed by Carl Astrand, who makes it easy for viewers to get caught up in the lush backdrops and minimalist styles of Swedish aesthetics. As Bruce, Greg Poehler is goofy and likable, while Bornebusch, who helped co-write the series, is a vision as Bruce’s Beatrice, guiding him through some of the nuances of Swedish culture, even though the more the two begin to settle down the more they begin to clash.
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Despite its delights, it would be easy to see Welcome to Sweden getting lost in the summer shuffle as a niche show with a cult following (NBC’s specialty), which is why Amy Poehler appears to do what she can to boost it with guest appearances, including her own (what else is family for?). Poehler, along with Aubrey Plaza, Will Ferrell and many others (some with Swedish family connections, some not), appear as fictionalized versions of themselves, all looking for Bruce after he left them in New York, accountant-less (the horror!)
This fuzzy plot device doesn’t really matter, though, in the glossy world of Welcome to Sweden, especially since the appearances are all (in Curb Your Enthusiasm-style) strange and heightened to the point of surrealism. It’s not just a way to attract audiences to the series; it actually works well in giving Bruce an interesting background, especially given the curiosity of those he meets about why he would move across the Atlantic to be friendless, jobless — without knowing the culture or language of his newly chosen country. As the episodes wear on, Bruce begins to wonder this himself.
Running a conservative 10 episodes (the show already has been picked up for a second season in Sweden, where it aired earlier this year), Welcome to Sweden knows how not to overstay its welcome. Greg Poehler’s personal connection to the material is clear both in his comfort in the role (a big leap for him out of relative obscurity) and in the show’s strong sense of itself. Welcome to Sweden knows the story it wants to tell, and it does so in tightly crafted half-hour blocks that are fjords full of charm.
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