I can imagine Greg Poehler’s Welcome to Sweden being something of an antioxidant. It’s mild, where sitcom magnets like The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, and Sheen-era Two and a Half Men are outrageous. These are the most harmless dick jokes this side of Saturday mornings. The show is based on Poehler’s own experiences, and it has that straight-out-of-Tuesday vibe. What it lacks in zing it ladles on in innocence. The pilot covers Bruce’s relocation and the hijinks of meeting his girlfriend’s Swedish family. At the end, Bruce (Poehler) and Emma (Josephine Bornebusch) sit on her parents’ dock underneath the half-sunset. The last line is Emma’s: “This is as dark as it gets here.”
Poehler’s big sister show’s up in the first frame. She plays Bruce’s boss—text-mad version of herself who must’ve gotten caught up on Pretty Little Liars the night (or maybe the meeting) before. Suspicious of the creator’s blood ties and the show’s NBC slotting? Joke’s on you: Here’s how much Amy Poehler cares about “Bruce”’s midlife gallivant. She planned to fire him (as her accountant, he’s made her too much money), but he’s resigning. Ninety seconds in, Poehler says, I’ve got this.
The show is tempered and unelaborate. Through Swedish airport security, Bruce jokes about smuggling drugs to a humorless officer. Emma’s drunken brother, Gustaf (Christopher Wagelin), teaches Bruce how to shoot vodka like a Swede. Her Uncle Bengt (Per Svensson) quizzes his Die Hard and Donnie Brasco quote-bank and wears a denim jacket with ad American flag stitched into the back. Bruce tries to sleep. They eat. They sauna—nakedly. Poehler mutters and rubbernecks with a dash of James Roday, minus the hyperactive over-confidence. The scenes don’t exactly climax. The whole thing is sort of the joke: Sweden’s just so zany!
There’s an ingrained discomfort to the comedy of manners, which is very different from the likes of The Office. I’m not sure the show could play meanly if it wanted to be. The mom (Lena Olin), a therapist and noseybody, would’ve been the figure with the closest aptitude. This American boyfriend of her daughter’s might as well be named Gaylord Focker. Yet the show brushes her off as harmless. Her barbs against Bruce’s height and clearly self-reflexive comments on his and Emma’s compatibility rile up neither doubt nor defensiveness in her daughter. She badgers him about his newfound unemployment while gloating about the ambition of her deadbeat son. She’s already been apologized for. She’s just going to do her thing.
One of the compartmental drawbacks to the pilot is that she’s not hard to agree with. Poehler and Bournebusch, who also writes for the show, don’t sizzle together. He presents this character as an act in asexuality while he nuzzles noses with Charlize Theron’s cousin. Bruce is a loveable flub. Emma is tall, self-reliant, and so under-bearing toward him she might as well be named Foil. Poehler and Bornebusch kiss and canoodle as if getting into position before the curtain rises. There’s romance, and then there’s affection, and then there’s this. I suspect the sex would seem more supportive than sexy. But if you think about it, there could be great charm in that too.
That’s the thing with this show. It’s flush with endearment and sincerity. Somehow, it avoids the saccharine. Think lemon meringue, not kringla. It can’t possibly rope in everyone. It’s Psych without the mysteries and ironized arrogance. It’s Pushing Daisies without the visual style and looming morbidity. It’s Parks and Rec without Nick Offerman and the looming bat-shittery. What’s left? This. Welcome to Sweden. Derivative? No. Find a show that can do this, please. A slight? Most likely. But keep in mind: All of those “without”s do not come to the same thing.
The sum of the lack of excitement is uniformity. Poehler seems okay with producing one of the easiest-going programs on television. Sweden’s the antithesis of summer escapism. “Day One” director Carl Åstrand, who directs six of ten episodes, composes scenes as if they were a baby’s cradle. You notice the color saturation and how actually yellow the light is. It suits the intended tenor. Bruce wants to take a break from life, by way of its original nuisances: family. Poehler invites us along—a ride on which kicking back might even be too much work.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.