With back to back debuts of two Thursday night comedies — “Welcome to Sweden” and “Working the Engels” — NBC offers up a near-perfect definition of the term “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
Created by Greg Poehler and executive produced by sister Amy, “Welcome to Sweden” is the best thing to happen to broadcast-network comedy since “Modern Family.” Sweet, smart and quickly addictive, it’s a classic cross-cultural romantic comedy with top notes of satire, but a brave and true heart.
It is also shot in Sweden and often conducted in Swedish, with subtitles. So a Swedish comedy with subtitles and two Poehlers — American television just keeps bringing it.
Of course, Scandinavia has been quietly infiltrating American television for years now, via adaptations (the “Wallander” series), remakes (“The Killing”) and straight-up imports. Denmark’s political drama “Borgen” is currently neck and neck with “The Wire” for top slot on the Snob’s Guide to Admitting You Watch Television.
Those accustomed to the glowering skies and miens of these dramas may have to don shades; the Poehler Sweden is a land in which the sun never sets, either literally or tonally.
Loosely based on Greg Poehler’s life, the show follows Bruce (Poehler), a well-meaning, slightly goofy accountant, as he quits his job and follows his Swedish girlfriend, Emma (Josephine Bornebusch, who is also a co-writer), to her homeland. There he makes all manner of mildly mortifying mistakes in scenarios constructed to send up the cultural tics of both nations (Swedes are reserved, Americans over-friendly) while also carefully exploring the nature of love.
As an added bonus, the beauties of Sweden, both human and scenic, are showcased. “Welcome to Sweden” is, without a doubt, the prettiest show on television.
More important, what could have easily become a High Joust of stereotypes — oh, the stupid, overly consuming Americans, oh, the judgy, minimalist Swedes — is (mostly) something more subtle. The pilot is a bit heavy-handed, relying on obvious jokes — Bruce’s jet lag, Emma’s goofy brother, an uncle who quotes American films, the amiable disdain of Emma’s parents, played by Lena Olin and Claus Mansson.
But subsequent episodes seem as intent on capturing the difficulties of meshing two lives and two cultures. Poehler and his writers occasionally overwork the material, but fun and fine performances by the entire cast (Olin and Mansson alone make the show worth watching) create a couple, and a family, who are as believable as they are unlikely.
Of course, it helps that Poehler soeur is involved; not only does she show up for a hilarious bit as a diva client, so do friends Will Ferrell and Aubrey Plaza. To accommodate A-list guesties, Bruce was an accountant to the stars.
These celebrity top notes allow the comedy a few nice meta-moments (Ferrell’s wife, actress Viveca Paulin, who also appears, is Swedish), and they also make room for the less than generous thought that it must be very nice to be Amy Poehler’s brother; it’s hard to imagine this show getting greenlit otherwise.
But if the Bushes and the Baldwins can have dynasties, so can the Poehlers. “Welcome to Sweden” is funny, with an actual story to tell. And that, rather than a famous name, is all you need to make a great comedy.
Too bad another set of siblings, Katie Ford and Jane Cooper Ford, did not get this memo. Their show, “Working the Engels,” immediately follows “Welcome to Sweden” and does not fare well by comparison. Actually, it does not fare well at all.
When the death of a lawyer reveals a mountain of debt, the Engels, his family of connect-the-dots misfits, decide to continue the family business. Mom (a wasted, in both senses of the word, Andrea Martin) is a drunk, son Jimmy (Benjamin Arthur) is a thief, daughter Sandy (Azura Skye) is a recovering addict and general mess, while her sister Jenna (Kacey Rohl) is the tightly wound responsible child who also happens to be an attorney.
Watching the cast rather heroically work their way through a series of jokes and “developments” as nondescript and rickety as the storefront law office they come to occupy, it was difficult not to despair: NBC took “Harry’s Law” off the air, then gave us this?
On the whole, I’d rather be in Sweden.