NBC’s new summer sitcom ‘Welcome to Sweden’ comes with an impressive pedigree: exec produced by Amy Poehler, it stars her brother Greg as a man who moves to Sweden for love. Amy even appears in the pilot’s first scene as “Amy Poehler,” the boss of Greg’s character, Bruce. “Amy Poehler” is distracted and self-absorbed and not at all like her ‘Parks and Rec’ character, Leslie Knope, or, from what I can tell, the real Amy Poehler. But she plays the scene with deadpan comic brilliance and gets her little bro off to a good start.
Greg plays Bruce Evans, a charmingly goofy guy who sees the bright side in everything (“Anything is possible!” he announces to a Swedish customs officer after explaining that he quit his accountant job to move. “I’ll just write ‘unemployed,’” replies the officer). Bruce is moving to Sweden because he wants to be with his girlfriend, who previously lived with him in New York but now wants to be closer to home. The girlfriend, Emma, is tall and blond and played by Josephine Bornebusch, previously seen in, well, nothing in English.
In fact, most of the show’s actors are natives of Sweden, known primarily for their acting work in that country. The unfamiliar faces lend an era of authenticity to the show’s setting, as do the conversations conducted in Swedish. We get subtitles at least; all poor Bruce gets is the opportunity to make confused faces.
Bruce, Emma, and her father, Birger (pronounced Beer-yeer) motor across the lake to the family’s home, and then we meet the one character who has done sufficient work in the U.S. to be recognizable: Lena Olin, as Emma’s mom. Olin is Swedish, it turns out, and she puts on the accent like this is the role she was born to play. We quickly learn that her humor is going to be of the “mildly racist” variety: She tells Emma that she expected Bruce to be taller, and Emma replies that he’s average height. Says Mom: “Average if you count children and Asians.” The digs at Bruce’s height continue throughout the episode.
Emma’s brother, Gustav, is given to big bear hugs and forcing Bruce to learn Swedish traditions. Thanks to that, Bruce drinks two shots of vodka after protesting that he is still a little unsteady on his feet following the plane and boat rides, and the drinking doesn’t stop there.
An unidentified relative of Emma’s pulls up in a red sports car, wearing a denim vest with an American flag printed on it. He owns a video store, so his entree with Bruce is through American movies. He greets him with “Yippee-ki-yay, mother f—er,” since that’s what he knows about the name Bruce.
As the family indulges in some afternoon libations, Bruce and Emma tell the story of how they met to different people. Bruce says they met at a dive bar, he squinted at Emma because he didn’t have his contacts in, and he talked about the only artist he could think of. Emma says they met at a romantic restaurant, gave each other that “look,” and discussed Jackson Pollock because they both like him. It’s a typical he-said, she-said moment, but it lets us know that this show is going to deal with the typical travails of romantic relationships, not just the kind that happen when you don’t speak the same native language.
Emma’s a good girlfriend, so she rescues Bruce from an awkward silence with Birger and takes him to a little cabin outside the house where he can nap on a bunk bed. Turns out, though, that it’s actually Gustav’s room (sorry, his “crib”), so there won’t be much sleeping there. Gustav sits on the edge of the bed and tells Bruce all about his “career” and how he thinks he might switch to being an entrepreneur. He wants to drive around in a bus eating tacos. When Bruce suggests selling tacos instead, Gustav decides that that is a brilliant idea.
The family eats dinner outdoors, wearing what looks like birthday hats and singing a song, but it’s unclear whose birthday it is. They want to know all about Bruce’s celebrity clients in New York. None of them have heard of Amy Poehler. It was nice of her to let them make fun of her like that. When Bruce tells the family that he’s taking time off from work to “find himself,” he’s greeted with hearty laughter. It’s a good glimpse into what the rest of the world thinks of uniquely American concepts like that.
In a conversation between Emma and her mother, we learn that the mother is a therapist, and her professional opinion of Emma and Bruce is “No way!” so Bruce has his work cut out for him there. He’s already won the men of the family over, though, as they demonstrate when they welcome him inside the family sauna. That’s a lot of sweaty man parts.
The episode ends with Bruce and Emma sitting on a dock, talking about their future together. While the tone of this first episode felt a bit uneven to me, I appreciated the attempts to balance humor with pathos. We’ve seen the “Hey, you’re different from me–that’s funny!” gag way too many times, but this time it just might work. It helps that there isn’t an overabundance of stereotypes about Swedish people to milk, and that the show is just as willing to poke fun at the things we in the States hold so near and dear.