If your knowledge of Sweden is limited to IKEA, meatballs and blondes, you’re probably ahead of the curve.
Most Americans have no clue about Scandinavia or its people -- which makes Greg Poehler’s journey in “Welcome to Sweden” a bit like Lewis and Clark’s to the middle of North America.
Swedes, we learn, aren’t as open as we’d like. They’re more fashionable, too. And they often take a dim view of those unwilling to be honest.
In the low-key new comedy, Poehler plays a successful money manager who follows his girlfriend back to her home in Sweden when she gets a promotion.
There, he figures, he can start anew, without much struggle. Unfortunately, the celebrities he used to advise won’t let him go; the natives won’t let him in their inner circle.
Caught in some nebulous middle, Poehler’s Bruce Evans is a man without a country.
The fish-out-of-water aspect intrigues but it also frustrates. Because Poehler and co-writer and co-star Josephine Bornebusch have fashioned this to air in both countries, one side doesn’t have an edge.
“Meet the Parents” offered a similar scenario, but Robert De Niro’s character didn’t have to bear the burden of a nation’s pride. He could be Ben Stiller’s foil.
Poehler, however, doesn’t have one. His girlfriend’s mother (nicely played by Lena Olin) may be the closest to an antagonist, but she’s not enough.
To work, “Welcome to Sweden” needs a country full of foils. Dropping in quirky performances by Will Ferrell, Gene Simmon, Patrick Duffy and Poehler’s real-life sister Amy isn’t enough to bring the funny.
Poehler needs to be our substitute, our eyes and ears.
Too often, he’s our flailing ego.
While folks in Sweden might have taken a different view when they saw the series (it aired there first), it’s unlikely they were guffawing over simple social gaffes.
Duffy and Illeana Douglas – as Poehler’s parents – probably got the laughs because they’re playing versions of typical Americans abroad. Those celebs who have a Swedish profile (Ferrell, perhaps) may have been funny. But Aubrey Plaza must have emerged as a big question mark, particularly since her dry sense of humor takes effort for Americans to digest.
The show’s joy, in fact, comes when Poehler tries to relate to his girlfriend’s family and friends. He gamely goes for a sauna, shares news (that he shouldn’t) and tries to understand a deadbeat brother who isn’t quite in the same league as the rest of his family.
The best of the Swedes (Olin aside) is Bengt (Per Svensson), an American-loving video store manager who uses movie catchphrases to communicate. He’s what “Welcome to Sweden” needs.
Without that abandon, the experience is a lot like visiting the in-laws: long, exhausting and, occasionally, amusing.
“Welcome to Sweden” has the hook to pull us in. Now, it just needs a little more bait.
“Welcome to Sweden” airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays on NBC, beginning July 10.