In the ever-growing need for new programming created by proliferating television platforms and their streaming counterparts, one positive outcome is the dilution of American exceptionalism on American TV. For years, the only place to see what other countries were watching was via DVD box sets, specialty networks, public broadcasters, or border-town cable packages carrying channels from the nation next door; even an English-language program from parts elsewhere would’ve seemed an odd fit on the major broadcast networks. But international co-productions like Hannibal and Orphan Black (or re-broadcast originals that led to American adaptations, like the Homeland-inspiring Prisoners Of War or the Swedish-Danish Bridge) are doing more than shoring up the bottom line for U.S. programmers. They’re disproving the notion that imports in primetime are somehow lesser than their Stateside counterparts. These are series worthy of serious consideration, rather than overseas product filling in for domestic shows on summer vacation.
By and large, however, these series have been dramatic in nature. It’s difficult to make a comedy that amuses across geographic divides; adding translations and subtitles to the mix only raises that bar. That’s one point in favor of NBC’s Swedish-American collaboration Welcome To Sweden: All the required reading—the single-camera sitcom features the most subtitled TV dialogue this side of bilingual drams like The Americans and Switched At Birth—never gets in the way of the jokes. Exchanges in Swedish are just one more thing sailing over the head of fish-out-of-water protagonist Bruce (Greg Poehler, whose older sister, Parks And Recreation’s Amy Poehler, co-stars and executive produces).
A fictionalization of Poehler’s own Scandinavian emigration, Welcome To Sweden follows Bruce as he eases into life in his adopted home country, where he’s moved with his girlfriend, Emma (Josephine Bornebusch). It’s an intriguing setup, one whose novel premise and setting refreshes musty sitcom setups like job-search blues, disapproving parents, and disagreements over home furnishings. Welcome To Sweden is the first English-language series produced for its Swedish network home, TV4, so there’s the sense that Poehler and his co-writers (who include Bornebusch) didn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel. Parts of its audience on either side of the Atlantic haven’t seen this particular wheel before—at least not when it’s speaking its native language.
The show makes for an interesting mix of its contributing cultures: At one point, Amy Poehler (a version of herself who’s exaggeratedly self-absorbed and financially reckless) comments on “glacially paced” Swedish cinema, a criticism some might lob at the patient opening passages of Welcome To Sweden. The scenery’s nicer during the country sojourn that opens Bruce’s time in Emma’s homeland, but the comedy truly hits its stride when they arrive in Stockholm, where the main character is challenged to adapt or (let his blossoming romance) die. There are portions of the 10-episode first season that are darker than any other American broadcast-network comedy, but not shying away from the inherent gravity of Bruce and Emma’s situation provides a rich shading to the stranger-in-a-strange-land laughs.
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As the leads, Poehler and Bornebusch are plenty agreeable, but they’re frequently upstaged by supporting players like Lena Olin as Emma’s mother and Per Svensson as an uncle obsessed with American pop culture. Bolstering the cast are cameo appearances from the likes of Will Ferrell, Malin Akerman, and Aubrey Plaza, the first two of whom suggest deep roots running between Sweden and the current ruling class of American film and TV comedy. (Akerman was born in Sweden, while Ferrell, like the younger Poehler, found love there.) As in Ricky Gervais’ post-Office sitcoms, the famous faces sometimes threaten to pull too much attention from the stories at hand, but it is fun to watch Amy Poehler play against type while Plaza does the opposite, crafting a persona that’s all of the sarcasm and none of the redeeming warmth of April Ludgate.
Whereas Welcome To Sweden’s setting and nation of origin are treated as an asset (it’s right there in the title, after all), NBC’s other new import downplays its border-crossing status. That’s quite a challenge, considering the strict regulations that dictate how much of a Canadian-produced TV series must be explicitly “Canadian”—but like fellow co-production Orphan Black, Working The Engels finds some creative work-arounds. Half of the main quartet portraying the dysfunctional Engel family—Kacey Rohl and Benjamin Arthur—hails from the Great White North. Creators Katie Ford and Jane Cooper Ford were born in the states but grew up in Toronto, the city that subtly serves as the Working The Engels’ setting and production base. (Not that anything beyond the CN Tower’s presence in establishing shots would give this fact away.) And, naturally, a Barenaked Ladies single serves as the show’s theme song.
But whereas that vague sense of place is a fundamental building block of Orphan Black’s otherworldly DNA, being a sitcom without a country robs Working The Engels of some color. The show counters with garish production design and Andrea Martin’s manic rendering of Ceil Engel, the matriarch whose attempted suicide pulls her grown children (Rohl and Arthur, along with Azura Skye) together in an attempt to salvage the family law firm. There’s a lot of high-concept standing in for substance during the first few episodes of Working The Engels, which come across like pieces of a lost David E. Kelley project. By episode three, however, the case-of-the-week format isn’t dropped, but it is backgrounded, with a greater emphasis placed on tensions within and interactions between members of the titular family.
This version of the show is more like Arrested Development minus the venom, with Rohl in the Michael Bluth position and Martin playing a Lucille who actually knows how to give a hug. Stepping out of Bryan Fuller Land from her role as Hannibal’s Abigail Hobbs, Rohl looks right at home among the tea-party topiary and saturated colors of the Engel homestead, and she strikes up a winning, role-reversed dynamic with Martin’s daffy mom. Playing the levelheaded kid who went into the family business, she affects the proper amount of barely concealed panic to enliven what could’ve been a wet-blanket role. On their own, Arthur’s lunkheaded Jimmy and Skye’s bubbly Sandy are sketched a little thin—but due to Working The Engels’ compact ensemble, they usually wind up paired with Rohl or Martin, salvaging some potentially dire storylines like “Jimmy gives grandma’s ring to a stripper” or “Sandy wants to win a mother-daughter dance contest.”
And in some respects, Working The Engels makes the whole “Canadian content” thing work for it, as when Rohl and Arthur’s countrymen Eugene Levy and Scott Thompson guest in the same half-hour. Watching Levy and Martin rekindle the spark of their SCTV days is especially a treat, a feisty back-and-forth that harkens back to a time when viewers had to wait until after the 10 o’clock news news to find out if Canadians could be funny. Turns out they can be, and still are, but these days they need a few episodes to work out the kinks.
Welcome To Sweden
Created by: Greg Poehler
Starring: Greg Poehler, Josephine Bornebusch, Lena Olin, Claes Månasson, Christopher Wagelin
Debuts: Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Single-camera sitcom
Entire first season watched for review
Working The Engels
Created by: Katie Ford and Jane Cooper Ford
Starring: Kacey Rohl, Andrea Martin, Benjamin Arthur, and Azura Skye
Debuts: Thursday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Single-camera sitcom
Five episodes watched for review