There’s a gag in diagnostic comedy surely as old as death. One party waits to see or hear from the doctor. As he sits with a crusted copy of Time in his lap, a doctor dislodges another party from her care. This party wanders, usually sulking, sometimes, like the couple in “Proving Love,” weeping, caught in the patient gravitation of the void that is now their life. Someone’s dying or is dead. The original party watches this, indulges his narcissism, and thinks: Oh shit. Could that be me?
Bruce and Emma each have to come to terms with measures of narcissism, or else risk their relationship. “Proving Love” is an episode about middle ground, which is what a functioning relationship is. Not a compromise, per se. When two people choose each other, they’re as good as whatever’s in the middle of their Venn diagram. You have those natural overlaps. The rest is a bartering system. What from your set will you tweak so it can osmosis into the center? What of his can you live with your partner not disposing?
After far too much family time, Bruce and Emma are moving back into her slick city apartment. The thing’s like a modern cottage and very white, which flatters both her taste and style, and very much doesn’t Bruce’s. She’s the blonde executive. He’s gingered and decked out in endless blue shirt/black pants combos. A selection of his belongings has been shipped in, but they’re equally pseudo-ragtag: a 40-dollar wooden bar; a football autographed by a non-Hall of Fame (non-New York) quarterback. Both of them seem surprised by the other’s degree of surprise. Who are you? they seem to be asking in so many words.
As if to demonstrate how easy it should be to answer that question, Bruce sets out to meet the neighbors. This is apparently an American thing. We’re too overzealous to pretend to care. With every neighbor—or homeless man—they come across, Bruce begins introductions and Emma sidesteps in embarrassment. The hand shielding her face might as well be an apology on his behalf. No one acknowledges Bruce—except that homeless guy. But his doubtful growling proves Bruce’s point. Indeed, a name and a smile isn’t enough to brighten others’ days. Status quo, as Bruce knows it, doesn’t jive here, in the streets or in his home.
The heft is beneath the episode’s surface. On it, “Proving Love” has Bruce and Emma before Swedish Immigration and in an apartment where Boomer Esiason-signed footballs now take up too much room next to designer chairs. They bicker about wall colors and furniture arrangements. It isn’t the sort of mean-spiritedness Leslie Mann and her movie husbands are always asked to bark and remain impervious to. Poehler and Bornebusch are similarly zippy. They crack at each other’s material attachments. “The walls are not decoration,” Emma snaps, fearing Bruce’s taste for brown. She rats him out later: “It’s his favorite color. It’s not even a real color.” His favored palette isn’t only unacceptable; it’s a sign of invalidation. She can’t sympathize with it, and so her fear becomes about hers for Bruce.
How can this be funny? If there isn’t the sarcasm or resentment-for-effect, can it even tickle? Poehler hasn’t crafted a comedic performance like a Ty Burrell—perhaps the most consistent character under the banner of a network sitcom. Bornebusch isn’t Mindy Kaling—and she doesn’t need to be. Bruce has this classic bachelor’s recliner. Gustaf at one point kicks back in it and it’s as if he’s discovered vodka: “Someone should sell these. I should sell these.” The deadbeat who’s never met a La-Z-Boy: that’s funny. The girlfriend who sees it as an omen of a boyfriend who’s yet a stranger, and the boyfriend who sees it as a test of self-sacrifice for the women he loves: that’s compelling. After all, what better showcases a man than his relationship with his chair?
This sitcom is so inviting because of its heart. Its leading pair supplies most of that. It’s Modern Family without the trademark sentimentality. You don’t exactly laugh as Poehler fumbles over several explanations as to why he mentioned to the immigration clerk that he looked like Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer. You don’t even really chuckle at the initial slippage of the names. The clerk steals the scene when he pokes his head out of the office and asks Emma, “Miss, you can either nod yes or no. You do know this man, right?” Emma can’t get the nodding down. It’s still the clerk we laugh at. But these are more than simple, often rehashed, gags because Poehler and Bornebusch have so seamlessly and unpretentiously invested these characters in the jokes’ emotional core.
Welcome to Sweden relies on its supporting cast to prevent staleness. Family can never have enough family time. Though “Proving Love” shrinks theirs on screen, Olin, Månsson, and Wagelin—particularly Wagelin—make the most of it. An old man in an elevator may rile up the loudest laughs these three episodes in. The show isn’t the first to have celebrities satirize themselves, but early guests Will Ferrell and Aubrey Plaza, and the reoccurring Amy Poehler have done it with panache. Plaza plays an exaggeration of herself stripped with every tone but sarcasm. She stalks Bruce and threatens Poehler’s drug connection in monotone. She sends Bruce a picture of her boobs and all we can hear is her earlier line: “I don’t read email.” It’s a generous show, open to all of its parts, and “Proving Love” is its turn yet.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.