“Welcome to Sweden” is one of the more intriguing summer series to launch this year or any other. It’s an imported comedy based and shot in Sweden, which has already aired in its native country to high ratings (so high, it’s already been picked up for a second season). It doesn’t appear that many, if any, alterations have been between countries either. While most Swedes speak English, most Americans do not speak Swedish, meaning a good chunk of the program has subtitles. It’s also scant on famous faces, as far as series regulars go. Lena Olin from “Chocolat” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is probably the most recognizable face outside of the many celebrities who stop by, approximately once per episode.
Why? “Welcome to Sweden,” about a man who leaves his high paying job as a celebrity accountant to move to Sweden for the love of his life, was created by Greg Poehler, brother of “Parks and Recreation” star and comedy veteran Amy Poehler. The elder Poehler cashes in a few favors from the likes of “SNL” veteran Will Ferrell and “Parks and Rec” co-star Aubrey Plaza to bring some much needed talent to the show, as well as appearing as an evil version of herself on more than one occasion. She, as always, is a delight — as are most of the celebrity guests, who occasionally save some subpar writing — but a much harsher “d” word comes to mind when watching the character her brother portrays on the show.
Unlike his sister, Greg has no formal training as an actor, writer, or producer (he and Amy serve as executive producers). Sadly, it shows. While plenty of family members are funny in their own right, it appears Amy’s wealth of experience in the UCB improv theatre, years writing and acting on “Saturday Night Live” and many diverse roles in television and film have actually helped her hone her craft and become one of the funniest people on the planet. Her brother, however, did none of these things, instead relying on whatever inherit charm and perseverance was within him to churn out a comedy series based on his own personal experiences moving to Sweden.
Big surprise: it doesn’t work. “Welcome to Sweden” isn’t devoid of humor entirely, but it’s the predictable, beat-by-beat comedy that tired out decades ago, and even then only worked when someone with immense talent was running the show. Characters settle into simple, restricting parameters. Greg plays Bruce, a man who moves across an ocean to be with the woman he loves, but doesn’t bother to show it very well once he gets there. He makes little to no effort to woo his girlfriend or her parents upon meeting the latter for the first time. Then he quickly devolves into a cliched, middle-aged man trying to “find himself” and in the process becomes a real dick. He’s rude to his neighbors (though he’s told to be), his would-be family-in-law (though they kind of deserve it) and a cashier who has the gall to ask him to pay for a pastry. Bruce is not a likable protagonist, nor is he some sort of comedic antihero. He’s just ill-defined by a writer/actor without experience to know where to find the definition.
His girlfriend, played by Swedish actress Josephine Bornebusch, isn’t much better. By episode two, all she cares about is sex, no matter how inappropriate or inconvenient (she actually gets pissed at Bruce for being too sick to sleep with her). Then in the third episode she becomes so fixed on making a good impression with the immigration office, she freaks out Bruce, ruins her interview and thusly trashes his too. What’s her reaction? Guess. While she’s simply not around enough in the fourth episode to get pissed off again, an uncomfortable pattern has been established.
All this adds up to “Welcome to Sweden” coming across as the antithesis to “Parks and Recreation.” Instead of providing insight into either of the countries its catering to (America for Swedish audiences, Sweden for Americans), it paints both with a broad brush and relies heavily on Bruce’s inability to speak Swedish for laughs (another example of Bruce’s dislikability, considering he usually blames them for his lack of understanding). Amy’s “Parks and Recreation” repeatedly illustrates the value of small town life, sharing both its detriments and its benefits with equal insight. It also creates a community of characters with good hearts, whereas “Welcome to Sweden” is filled with angry pessimists, from the mother who hates her daughter’s boyfriend to our two leads who don’t seem to be very in love with each other.
It’s this part of the show that’s most troublesome, seeing as it’s based on Greg Poehler’s actual love life. The two simply don’t seem to get along. They know very little about one another, and the chemistry is virtually nonexistent. While it’s understandable given Greg’s lack of acting experience, the issue could have been skirted with a few more romantic moments or well-timed proclamations of love. They don’t have to be Leslie and Ben, whose love story is unparalleled in modern television, but they do have to show why we should care whether or not this trip succeeds or fails. As of now, it looks like Bruce should head back to the States. At least there he has some funny friends.