NBC premieres two new summer comedies tonight. The titles of both start with the letter W, they’re both about families and they’re both “foreign” in a sense. Stylistically, however, they’re very different, although both are single-camera (i.e., no laugh track) sitcoms.
First up, and by far the stronger, is Welcome to Sweden, a fresh, charming romantic comedy created by Greg Poehler, kid brother to NBC’s sitcom sweetheart, Amy (Parks and Recreation), who is the show’s executive producer. Don’t shrug off this show as an exercise in nepotism, though. It’s an original.
Poehler, a lawyer turned stand-up comic and now actor, based Welcome to Sweden largely on his own life experiences, chiefly how he hoisted anchor and moved from the United States several years ago with his then-girlfriend and moved to her native Sweden, where they live nowadays just outside Stockholm with their kids. Poehler’s sitcom counterpart is Bruce Evans, a successful but bored New York accountant who has started daydreaming of another, more fulfilling career when his girlfriend, Emma Wiik (Josephine Bornebusch, also one of the show’s co-writers), accepts a big banking promotion that requires her to move back to Sweden.
Thus, the impetuous Bruce moves without a job to a new country where he can’t even speak the language, which, by the way, is fairly complex to the point that its alphabet includes non-English letters. Emma’s close-knit family includes her laconic father, Birger (Claes Mansson), and therapist mother, Viveka (Lena Olin, Alias), who welcome Bruce yet are frankly baffled that the man hasn’t made much of an effort to learn Swedish. (Viveka also is almost comically stunned that her future son-in-law is so “short,” although Poehler is at least average height by American standards).
What follows is a mostly delightful fish-out-of-water comedy, as Bruce tries to master the cultural differences of his adopted country. Poehler shrewdly conceived Welcome to Sweden to work for both Swedish and American TV audiences, which is why the show has a mostly Swedish cast, yet is performed almost entirely in English, thanks to the plot point that Bruce cannot speak Swedish. (There are a few subtitled moments where Emma’s family switches to Swedish because they’re talking about Bruce and don’t want him to know what they’re really saying). The show also includes cameo appearances by American celebrities, including Amy Poehler and her Parks and Rec castmate Aubrey Plaza, Will Ferrell and KISS frontman Gene Simmons. Patrick Duffy and Illeana guest star in a couple of episodes as Greg’s visiting Midwestern parents.
As Welcome to Sweden unfolds, it gradually becomes more about the ways in which the characters are fundamentally alike than culturally and linguistically different, although it doesn’t hit us over the head with this message. Welcome to Sweden is aimed at adults, and frankly, it more often generates smiles of recognition than conventional belly laughs.
Yet Poehler – who, by the way, looks almost disconcertingly like Greg Kinnear’s baby brother – has his own distinctive comic sensibility and perspective, along with an unpredictably delightful story to tell. I hope NBC viewers will give a warm welcome to Welcome to Sweden. A second season already has been ordered by the show’s Swedish broadcasters, and fingers crossed the show’s success will translate Stateside, too.
Welcome to Sweden is followed immediately by Working the Engels, another, far broader comedy about a “foreign” family. In this case, the show is pretty defiantly Canadian, right down to its theme song by Barenaked Ladies, a predominantly Canadian cast and crew and, for once, a Canadian urban backdrop that is NOT trying to pass as a U.S. city. (Working the Engels aired in Canada earlier this year).
The great Andrea Martin – who technically was born in Maine, but is informally an honorary Canadian, thanks to her unforgettable, Emmy-winning years on the Toronto-based SCTV sketch show – stars as Ceil Engel, a doting helicopter mom forced to rally her three children when Ceil’s attorney husband and family breadwinner dies, leaving them a storefront law firm that is $200,000 in the red.
Thankfully, daughter Jenna (Kasey Rohl) is a qualified attorney, but her two siblings – kooky Sandy (Azura Skye) and dim-bulb Jimmy (Ben Arthur) – haven’t got a lick of legal training or expertise between them. Jimmy, formerly a smalltime crook, is reasonably capable of being the office muscle, but Sandy – who at present is ill-advisedly trying out a career as a life coach and ordained-online minister – is still flailing about for a professional identity.
Jenna, clearly, is the most together of the Engels family, yet Ceil is obsessed with the lack of romance in her life. When Jenna remarks that she enjoys being alone, Ceil freaks out, saying, “You know who also said that? The lady who was so fat, they had to CUT HER out of her house. Jenna, you are 600 pounds and 14 cats away from trouble!”
NBC sent out five episodes for preview. Working the Engels is an old-fangled show in its construction, but it gets better as it goes along. Most episodes feature Jenna in a main storyline about the office, while Ceil and Sandy get a secondary, far zanier plotline. Everything comes together very comically, however, by episode five, in which for complicated reasons Sandy is trying to pass herself off as the author of an erotic legal thriller called “Banging Gavels” (the manuscript is very heavily drawn from Sandy’s actual diary).
Ceil sees the commercial prospects of this “novel,” but offers Sandy her services as an editor.
“For one thing, you spelled ‘intercourse’ with a ‘k,’ “ Ceil points out. “And you might want to change some names.”
“Of who?” Sandy asks.
“Our neighbors’ husbands.”
Martin works very, very hard to sell the weaker material, and Skye – one of those brilliant and beautiful comediennes who never has broken out as she should have – is absolutely adorable, and both Rohl and Arthur are likable enough. Too much of Working the Engels is a hit-or-miss affair, though, despite guest appearances by celebrity Canadians Eugene Levy (SCTV), Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall) and Gregory (billed here as “Greg”) Smith (Rookie Blue). Jason Priestley (Beverly Hills, 90210) directed most of the episodes NBC sent out for preview.
Working the Engels is a very broad comedy that works fairly well as lightweight summer entertainment, but I’ll be surprised if the Engels keep working past their first season.