"Welcome to Sweden," a sitcom about an American accountant to the stars who moves to his girlfriend’s homeland, stood out in two modest ways when it debuted on NBC last year.
The low-key import from Sweden offered a rare, gentle comedy for U.S. network television, with familiar domestic conflict juxtaposed against a foreign setting, sans an excess of cheap jokes. The show also helped kick off a trend of sorts in TV subtitles – a device similarly used to great effect by two of last season's most promising new programs, CW's "Jane The Virgin" and ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat."
"Sweden" makes its welcome return Sunday as a mackerel-out-of-water comedy where the laughs and character insight are found in translation.
The sitcom's premise, as with many shows, from "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" to "Everybody Loves Raymond," was inspired by real life: Greg Poehler gave up his law career, moved with his wife to her Swedish birthplace and eventually transitioned into the family business of comedy (he's Amy Poehler's brother). Unlike most shows based on real situations, "Welcome to Sweden" doesn't appear to go too overboard with exaggeration in the story of Greg Poehler’s easygoing Bruce and his banker girlfriend Emma – even if Bruce’s needy celebrity former clients (among them Will Ferrell, Aubrey Plaza, and, of course, Amy Poehler) showed up last season, playing hyper versions of themselves.
The show’s charm rests less in star cameos than in the omnipresent eccentric characters, including Emma’s slacker brother and her American pop culture-obsessed uncle. The sitcom’s strength also emanates from situations rooted in relatable circumstances – most notably the doubts Emma’s mother (played by Lena Olin, the one familiar face among the regulars) has in Bruce’s ability to adjust to life in Sweden and get a job. His struggles to find work and friends (he pretends to be Canadian when hanging out with an Iraqi refugee pal) add emotional resonance to the ostensibly light comedy.
The frequent subtitles aren’t a distraction as much as ways of letting us know what Poehler’s character’s future in-laws really think about him and of explaining some cross-cultural misunderstandings. The welcome growth in subtitles, used to varying degrees in “Jane the Virgin” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” also allows for more voices in primetime, using cultural, language and generational differences to help tell stories and generate some cruelty-free laughs.
Check out a preview of the new season above, which first aired in Sweden, where the oddly likeable comedy is already a hit in two languages.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.