What a relief. Trashing NBC sitcoms may sound like a good time. How often do you get to fling around alliterative phrases like “banal blather,” “flat fodder,” and “trite trash” with abandon, knowing they’ll never make it onto a TV commercial? But it can wear on you, especially if you remember that NBC was once a king of comedy, and could still bring it with the likes of “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation.” Watching Michael J. Fox, Sean Hayes, Maya Rudolph, and Matthew Perry fail miserably isn’t much of a good time.
On Thursday night, NBC is premiering two new sitcoms, and one of them — “Welcome to Sweden — is actually pretty charming. Created by and starring Greg Poehler, Amy’s younger brother, the show is quite different from — the Poehler opposite of? — the NBC sitcoms that bang you over the head with dull punch lines. It’s a sly, low-key comedy, one that makes affectionate fun of Americans and Swedes with equal vigor. It took me about 10 minutes to get the hang of the show and embrace its offbeat rhythms, and then I was good to go.
Poehler has based “Welcome to Sweden,” which premieres at 9 p.m., on his own experience; once a lawyer in America, he moved to Sweden to be with his Swedish-born wife and become a stand-up comic. He plays Bruce, an accountant to the stars who gives up his job to follow his girlfriend, Emma (Josephine Bornebusch), to her native land. Naturally, her family is eccentric, not to mention tall, particularly her father, Birger (Claes Mansson), who seems to shrink every room he enters. Because the stars he worked with — including Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Gene Simmons, and Aubrey Plaza — can’t live without Bruce, they make regular appearances in his life and on the show.
Emma’s mother, Viveka, is astute as well as bilingual, and she openly questions whether Bruce is good enough — and tall enough — for her daughter. Viveka deserves particular note because she is played by Lena Olin with infectious glee. If you’re more accustomed to seeing Olin in dramatic movies such as “Enemies: A Love Story” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” you will be pleasantly surprised at her comic stylings. She makes Viveka into more than just the stereotypically disapproving mother. Indeed, most of the actors here manage to overcome the lure of sitcom-character clichés, so that the series unfolds more like a character-based movie.
The show certainly relies on familiar tropes — the “Meet the Parents” gaffes, the young couple getting caught having sex by her parents, the American who feels compelled to be friendly to strangers on the street, the Swede (Emma’s brother) who worships American pop culture. But Poehler gives it all appealingly unexpected twists. When Emma’s parents catch her and Bruce in flagrante, for example, they are not appalled, and awkwardness does not ensue. And that is funny in its own way. So is the scene in the sauna in the premiere, when Emma’s father stands naked talking to Bruce, who is sitting in front of him cringing at the sight and about to pass out from the heat.
Poehler, who looks a little bit like Eric McCormack, also makes sure that the relationship between Bruce and Emma is convincing, so that we understand why Bruce has traded in his successful career to move to Sweden. They have a good romantic-comedy rapport, with distinctive touches such as their penchant for indirectly insulting each other and their very different tastes in home design (she loves white and beige, he loves kitsch). They are sweet, but not saccharine.
The second NBC sitcom premiering Thursday night is called “Working the Engels,” and it’s a lot less original and subtle than “Welcome to Sweden.” The show, at 9:30 p.m., moves faster and features a lot of hammy performances, most notably by Andrea Martin as the Engel family matriarch. The setup has her and her three kids taking over her husband’s law firm after he dies and leaves them $200,000 in debt. Only youngest daughter Jenna (Kacey Rohl) has any legal and business sense; her siblings are useless. Sandy (Azura Skye) is a flake, and Jimmy (Ben Arthur) is a crook.
There’s a hint of “Arrested Development” in the air, but “Working the Engels” is ultimately a much more common kind of dysfunctional family sitcom. If you like watching Martin go way, way over the top – and, in all honesty, I do – then you might find something here to enjoy. She drinks two glasses of wine at once, she falls off the roof, she breezes in and out of the office like a ruffled peacock. Skye, too, goes for big as the ditz to beat all ditzes. She’s a screwball of confusion. If “Welcome to Sweden” is a soft breeze, “Working the Engels” is a strong gust of crazy.
WORKING THE ENGELS
Starring: Andrea Martin, Azura Skye, Ben Arthur, Kacey Rohl
Thursday night, 9:30-10
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.