9.5

Beartown on HBO Max Is an Outstanding, Unsparing Work that Transcends Scandinavian Noir

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<i>Beartown</i> on HBO Max Is an Outstanding, Unsparing Work that Transcends Scandinavian Noir

It was probably inevitable that with enough time and the explosion of the genre, somebody would take the rhythms of Scandinavian snow noir and mix it with a dose of heavy realism, eschew the usual cliches (scene one: a man out for a walk discovers the corpse, which has deer antlers attached to it), and make the product more human and less about the crime. It was not inevitable, however, that the finished product would be as good as Beartown, the new HBO limited series from Sweden.

Through five episodes, this series tells the story of Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg), a retired NHL player who returns to his hometown (Bjornstad, which translates to “Beartown”) with his wife and two children to coach the semi-professional hockey team. Bjornstad is a failing, dilapidated town steeped in Nordic misery, and the hockey team is a perfect reflection of the people: sad, old, and almost hopeless. Andersson, who comes with his own tragic burden—his young son died while he lived in North America—decides that the only way he’ll continue is if he can coach the junior team. There, he can utilize the talents of Kevin Erdahl (Oliver Dufaker), the son of his former rival, a prodigious talent who spends hours outside his home on the cold winter nights, slapping puck after puck into a net hung with targets.

The story proceeds in this way for enough time that you begin to feel comfortable within those parameters, and then something happens that completely changes the tenor of the series. I can’t say what that something is, but it’s a shift that feels shocking and organic at the same time, and casts the characters in an entirely new light while challenging them in new and profound ways. I almost feel compelled to apologize for the vagueness of that sentence, but it’s necessary to avoid spoilers, and although I’m not as sensitive to plot twists as the average viewer, it pays to give yourself over to the rhythms of this show and experience it on its own terms.

In lieu of discussing the plot, then, which is masterfully handled with the perfect blend of realism and understated horror, let’s talk about the other ways this show excels. First, there’s the director Peter Gronlund, who I’d never heard of before but whose other work I’m going to seek out immediately. He succeeds marvelously on various fronts (the way he treats the landscape, conveying a heavy, ominous sense of fate through a snowy Sweden winter, but without the tempting cliches you see so often in this genre, is masterful), but perhaps his best achievement is in the naturalistic performances he pulls from the cast. You get the sense you’re watching real people have real interactions, with the artifice of “acting” stripped so bare that it’s scarcely visible. Of course, making something look this easy is actually very difficult, and when you’ve emerged from his immersive world, you can start to see the scope of what Gronlund has pulled off.

He has help, of course. Dufaker is tremendous as the moody, confused Erdahl, a boy blessed with prodigious talent and a prosperous future who nevertheless is mired in unhappiness, confusion, and self-loathing. Andersson does everything he needs to do as Ulf, and is a worthy successor to the stoic, heartbroken men who came before him in this genre. The most compelling of all, though, is Miriam Ingrid. She stars as Peter’s daughter Maya, a fresh-faced, almost innocent girl who changes before our eyes over the course of five episodes into someone so complex and worldly that you can’t look away. Beartown is a series that will be remembered for a long time, I think, but 10 years down the line it may be most memorable as the first really big role for Ingrid. (In Sweden, anyway.)

There’s an almost Robert Altman-esque vibe to many of the scenes, in the sense that overlapping conversation and seemingly improvised bits of dialogue add credibility to a party scene, or a locker room speech, or the chatter of parents in the stands. Through these methods, Gronlund establishes a wonderful flow that nearly goes unnoticed amid the story and the drama, but that is essential to the world-building which seems to capture a viewer so effortlessly. And it’s on the back of this tremendous ensemble approach that Ingrid and Dufaker and Andersson are able to stand out, stars for certain, but stars that benefit from their team.

Speaking of teams, it should come as no surprise that the hockey scenes are also extremely well done, which is quite an effort considering that this is only a “sports” show in the loosest sense. Friday Night Lights had a similar drama-to-sports ratio, but while FNL’s forays into football were inevitably ridiculous—we shall never forget Landry kicking a 60-yard field goal, or whatever it was, with a swing of the leg that wouldn’t break a piece of paper—the hockey scenes in Beartown are completely natural, and it’s clear that they put a lot of time and effort into making them look like real junior hockey.

So, yes, Beartown works as an athletic drama, too. This ingredient and all others cohere seamlessly, and you’re left with a show that transcends noir even as it elevates it. It’s very easy to lose the art in a genre like this, and recent efforts like The Head prove how difficult it can be to escape the constraints of the usual tropes even in an otherwise strong production. It’s clear that noir generally—and Scandi-noir specifically—hold a special appeal to modern audiences, and it’s clearer still that in the race to pump out as many as possible, some of the vibrant energy of what makes it special has been lost. There is no serial killer in Beartown, there is no religious iconography, no mass conspiracy, no last-minute twists to justify hours of uncertainty. There are only human beings, lost in a landscape, subject to the nightmares and redemptions that have plagued and absolved us from the start, and from which we’re called upon to rise even as the earthly world extends its cold, familiar shackles.

Beartown premieres Monday, February 22nd on HBO Max.


Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

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