Critic’s Pick: TV Picks: ‘East Los High,’ Paralympics, ‘Welcome to Sweden’
“East Los High” (Hulu). A welcome second season for this Web-based Latino teen drama, set in East Los Angeles, begins this week, following some gap-bridging prequels. Originally created with an educational ulterior motive, specifically to address and possibly to counter high rates of teenage pregnancy among Latinas, it remains true to its mission at no expense to its raciness and racy at no expense to its seriousness. (The word “condom” is a kind of mantra here.) Not surprisingly, it focuses on the female characters, who bear the brunt of sexual bad decisions, or lack of decision, and are, let’s face it, generally more interesting and complicated than teenage boys. As my colleague Yvonne Villarreal put it in her recent feature on the series, as an English-language show with an all-Latino cast it’s “a TV unicorn in the broadcast marketplace”; rare also is its even-handed representation of a working-class world, and the respect it pays to East L.A., which television tends to regard almost exclusively as where cops go in pursuit of criminals, but which is of course overwhelmingly a place in which ordinary people do ordinary things.
There is, to be sure, a heightened sense of drama and sensation -- this is a soap opera, if comparatively naturalistic one -- but a heightened sense of drama and sensation is the very coin of the teenage mind, to which even boredom can feel like the end of the world. (The language is moderately salty, and the sex, if not explicit, is heavily implicit.) And if at times the story is conspicuously being nudged toward a capital-P point (this year, bisexuality and domestic abuse join the mix), director Carlos Portugal, the series co-creator with Kathleen Bedoya, keeps his characters out in the front of the issues. And though the show demonstrates repeatedly that actions have consequences, it is not judgmental toward the actors. (Except the ones old enough to know better.) The kids here are smarter or less smart; more mature or naive; more honest or deceitful, or self-deceiving; wilder or more cautious. But they are not Good or Evil in the Manichean Hollywood sense; they are … kids, working it out.
“My Way to Olympia” (PBS, Monday). In which disabled German filmmaker Niko von Glasow (his arms are severely shortened, with his hands about where his elbows ordinarily would be) visits with athletes preparing for the 2012 London Paralympic Games: Bosnian-born Norwegian one-armed tennis player Aida Husic Dahlen; the Rwandan sitting volleyball team, whose ranks are made up of formerly warring Hutus and Tutsis; Greek paraplegic boccia player Greg Polychronidis, who has spinal muscular atrophy; and American archer Matt Stutzman, whose condition resembles van Glasow’s, and who shoots with his feet.
The documentary rambles a bit -- it is roughly chronological, but often not -- and the director is as much its subject as the people he has come to film. But the unifying narrative, such as it is, is Von Glasow’s increased appreciation for athletics, which he initially professes to hate -- suspecting that the Paralympics are “a big show to disguise the problem between society and disabled people” -- and his growing affection for his subjects (whom he also regards with a certain suspicion). While we see the competitors through the games, and their wins and losses, this is only partially a story of the glory of sport, or the pluckiness of the physically challenged, and to the extent that it is, it is not sentimental about it. (These are not the massaged and managed portraits of the NBC Olympics.) He is nosy, even a little pushy, less interested in who wins than in their family dynamics and inner life. (“I feel like I’m deep down happy,” says one athlete. “Then why do you need approval all the time?” Von Glasow asks.) He grows especially close to the witty and composed Polychronidis; by the end of the film, they are more or less doing comedy together, as they sneak a game of boccia on the ancient site of the Olympics -- hence the title -- are discovered, and depart like busted schoolboys.
“Welcome to Sweden” (NBC, Thursdays). Amy Poehler’s real-life little brother Greg, a lawyer who moved to Sweden for love and became a stand-up comedian -- as unlikely a sentence as I will write this year -- stars in this cream-filled, culture-clash sitcom as Bruce, an accountant who moves to Sweden for love and, several episodes in, hasn’t become anything at all. An American insistent on his right to be casual and to be accommodated, he is perhaps less charming and more of a pill than he is meant to be. We don’t quite see what his Swedish girlfriend (Josephine Bornebusch, who also co-writes) says she sees in him, and in nearly every conflict he creates or encounters we tend to take the other person’s side. (Or that may be the point: The series originally aired in Sweden, where it has been renewed for a second season, and where it may play more as the story of the strange things Americans do than as a send-up of local ways.) The premise replays countless comedies in which a person repeatedly, if not permanently, fails to impress his beloved’s family (intimidating father, skeptical mother, idiot brother), but this time they are Swedish, which is different enough. Poehler, who has no previous acting experience (that I can discover) does fine, but where he falters, or the script does, he is well supported by his native castmates (including Lena Olin, who is also famous here, as Emma’s mother); by as-themselves cameos from sister Amy, Will Ferrell, Aubrey Plaza and Gene Simmons; and by Patrick Duffy and Illeana Douglas as Bruce’s parents. (Douglas, I note, was ahead of this Scandinavian curve with her Ikea-based Webcom “Easy to Assemble”). And he benefits from the setting itself, from the exotic Scandinavian light and language: It feels like a vacation. (Ace of Base jokes are included.)
Robert Lloyd counts to 140, Twitter-style, at @LATimesTVLloyd
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