Welcome to Sweden, the new NBC sitcom, features Greg Poehler (brother of Amy) as Bruce, an accountant to the stars who quits his job to move to Sweden and live with his Swedish girlfriend (Josephine Bornebusch). It’s a classic fisk out of water story. It debuted last week to mediocre—but not bad, considering it’s July and the show had a crappy lead-in—ratings. Reviews ranged from a bona fide rave to an emphatic “meh.” Having watched a few episodes in advance, I think the New York Times got it right: The show is “pleasant, inoffensive, and quite charming,” though perhaps “more good-humored than it is humorous.”
Still, Will Ferrell guest stars on tonight’s episode—in the world of the show, comedy giant Will Ferrell is one of Bruce’s clients—playing the ideal American husband to a Swedish woman (drawing, no doubt, on his own experience). And since I am myself a less-than-ideal American husband to a woman who was born and grew up in Sweden, I thought it would be fun to watch the show with my wife, Kristine, and see if the jokes rang true to our own lives.
One of the first scenes shows Bruce awkwardly meeting the father of his girlfriend, Emma, and responding in English when the father addresses him in Swedish. He doesn’t speak any Swedish. “That’s what you were like, Jer,” my wife helpfully noted. “Remember that disc that my mom gave you for Christmas that you were supposed to learn Swedish with and then never did?” We’ve been together for eight years. But Swedish is really hard! And who still uses CDs?
After we learn that Bruce knows no Swedish, his girlfriend’s mom mocks his diminutive stature relative to Swedes. Emma says he’s “average height,” and the mom makes a bad joke about him being average height “if you include children and Asian people.” Again, Kristine turned to me. “He’s short, just like you,” she says.
But Kristine was less convinced by the way the Swedes in Welcome to Sweden spout American clichés. A weird uncle on the show, who has never been to America but loves the U.S., arrives in an American flag shirt, bandana, and denim vest and introduces himself to Bruce by saying the greatest one-liner in movie history. When Bruce later tries to take a nap in Emma’s brother’s room, the brother interrupts, saying “for real, this is my crib. My crib, yo.” “This would never happen,” Kristine says. “Everybody is trying to speak English like an American, trying to adapt to him, because they see that’s how people talk on TV. It’s stupid.”
In the next scene, the show regained its cultural accuracy. The family gathers around a table covered by a tent and sings a weird song I’ve never heard before. It’s apparently called Helan Går, but I write it down in my notes as “Elangor.” Kristine starts singing along. In the show, everybody drinks a shot of schnapps, and starts sucking down crayfish. This is the Crayfish Festival, held in August, which I’ve always heard about but never been to. All the characters are wearing party hats with crayfish on them like at a child’s birthday party, if the child had an unexplained and overly nurtured obsession with decapods.
“Helan Går! You never heard my mom sing that? It’s the Schnapps Song,” Kristine says. “It’s the one you sing before drinking. We never went in August so you never got to eat the crayfish and wear the hat.” I ask Kristine if the hats are normal. “The hats are totally normal. If you came to a Crayfish Party there would be hat-wearing.”
Someone on the show suggests they go for a dip in the lake and then all get nude and go in the sauna, where they continue to drink schnapps and the brother insists that Bruce removes his towel. This doesn’t ring true to Kristine. “I wouldn’t drink alcohol and go into the sauna! It’s too dehydrating.”
The episode closes with Bruce wondering if it’s nighttime, because it’s late but the sun hasn’t set. Emma tells him “this is as dark as it gets.” The show seems to be referencing Midsummer, or the summer solstice, when the sun never sets over Stockholm. But Kristine notes that the Crayfish Festival actually takes place in August, and it is dark out at night by then. “It would never be that light during the Crayfish Festival. There’s a hole in this show. It’s either Midsummer or Crayfish Festival. It can’t be both!”
The second episode, the one with Ferrell that airs tonight, is dedicated mainly to Bruce’s travails in attempting to learn the Swedish language. It’s not great, but there’s one kind of funny scene where Bruce refuses to eat “bulle,” or cinnamon buns, apparently because he’s allergic to cinnamon. The mom gets very upset with Bruce for refusing. “If you don’t eat a cinnamon bun it will be weird, but nobody will question your sanity,” Kristine objects. “But it’s true,” she adds, “who doesn’t like cinnamon buns?”
When Ferrell shows up, Kristine is annoyed that his TV wife is a stereotypically blue-eyed, blonde-haired Swede, when in real-life his wife’s hair is slightly less blonde. “Sweden has brunettes, you know.”
Ferrell’s masterful Swedish contrasts with Bruce’s ineptitude. “I just think when you love someone and they’re the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you think about when you go to bed at night, the very least you can do is to learn their language,” Ferrell says. “Jag älskar dig.” Kristine laughs uproariously at this line, and I ask her why. “Because it’s Will Ferrell. He’s funny.” I cannot argue with this.
Ferrell then gives Bruce his “Swedish for Beginners” tape. “That’s how I learned Kalle Anka. (Donald Duck.) Musse Pigg. (Mickey Mouse.) Långben. (Goofy, long legs.),” he says. I ask Kristine to explain why all those Disney characters would be on a Swedish language tape. “Because it’s important, Jer.” This, at least, I understand: The annual viewing of Donald Duck and Friends is one of the country’s most cherished Christmas traditions.