[This is a review of Welcome to Sweden season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Without the summer “burn-off” season we might not have had the chance to see Greg Poehler’s charming new comedy series, Welcome to Sweden. A risky proposition for NBC due to Poehler’s relative low profile and the show’s reliance on subtitles and subtlety, Welcome to Sweden mines laughs from mildly uncomfortable situations and awkwardness in a way that no NBC show has since the good old days of the Steve Carell-lead Office - with Poehler’s Bruce Evans coming of as a more relatable and well-meaning every-man than Carell’s buffoonish character did.
The brother of Parks and Recreation star Amy Poehler (who is co-producing the series and pops up as an exaggerated and un-related version of herself in the pilot), Greg Poehler is actually pulling from his own life to tell this semi-autobiographical story. An attorney in New York City in the mid-aughts (in the show, Bruce is a former accountant to the stars), Poehler walked away from his life to move to Sweden to live with his Swedish-born girlfriend. Everything clearly worked out rather well for Poehler in that he and that woman are now married with three kids and he has since graduated from practicing law to creating and starring in a sitcom. However, if there is any truth to the comedic way that Poehler portrays the transition to Sweden in the first episode, it’s clear that he paid all applicable tolls to get to higher ground.
Speaking to Bruce’s relatability, most of us have walked across the mine field that lays across the floor of our significant other’s family home, but to watch Bruce do that after a lengthy transatlantic flight brings him to a strange land with strange people that he feels compelled to impress as they speak Swedish at him, invites a kind of sympathetic laughter.
A “fish-out-of-water” tale that clicks despite the cliches, even the initially two-dimensional supporting characters fail to annoy since we, like Bruce, will come to find out more about them as time goes on.
As Greg’s live-in girlfriend Emma, Josephine Bornebusch provides little more than moral support to Bruce as he endures this trial by combat with her mother and father. The two – Poehler and Bornebusch – have solid chemistry, but in the future, I’m hopeful that she will assert herself more with her gently domineering mother, Viveka (Lena Olin).
Olin has the most well drawn role on the series besides the lead. A therapist, Viveka expertly sizes up Bruce as both a mother and a professional, occasionally applying a bit of well-targeted pressure on her daughter about what she (Viveka) views as his weakpoints, like his height and his willingness to abandon everything to move to Sweden. Having Viveka move so aggressively against Bruce in the first episode ventures off the road a little bit in that Poehler is putting a potentially large obstacle into the field of play, but in butting up against an actress like Olin, at least we know that any repeated run-ins will be expertly handled and entertaining.
Living with Viveka is Emma’s accepting and embarrassingly tall father (Claes Månsson) and her slacker brother (Christopher Wagelin), who explains that life is cheaper at home and that he wants to be in the business of being an entrepreneur – a taco bus entrepreneur thanks to a suggestion from Bruce. Bengt, Emma’s uncle, also appears and he is obsessed with American pop culture, constantly quoting old movies to Bruce, who to him is a fascination from his beloved US of A.
Whether this represents the whole of Emma’s family is not known, but we do know that we will see members of Bruce’s family (Patrick Duffy will play his father) and a few notable guest appearances like Malin Ackerman, Illeana Douglass, Will Ferrell, Aubrey Plaza and Gene Simmons. Will these people play characters that assist Bruce in his effort to carve out his own niche in his new homeland, or will they be reminders of his past life? Time will tell, but there is a cause to wonder with some concern about how all those familiar faces will fit into this show without interfering with its comedic rhythm – a concern with any show, but especially one that is finding its feet.
With Welcome to Sweden, though, we can take comfort in the knowledge that, at least to its native Swedish audience (where the show already premiered, ran and received an order for a second season), this show is a hit. Still, while there are certain universal themes, tastes can differ and there is a wonder if this show will connect with audiences in America. It’s not everyday that a show will take almost a minute to sit in silence and soak up the awkwardness, pushing on that silence until we break it with our own laughter over the wordless comedy that is taking place. Welcome to Sweden isn’t a typical show and for it to find success in the US, it’s going to have to hit people right in the heart. Even if it somehow misses the mark, at least we’ll have this summer fling with the show and the knowledge that there are two comedically gifted Poehlers in the world.
Welcome to Sweden airs on Thursdays @9PM ET on NBC.