The title of this second episode of Welcome to Sweden is a double entendre. Bruce speaks no Swedish. He’s taking a class, but he’s terrible. Will Ferrell shows up as a former client and lends Bruce a tape voiced by some Scarlett Johansson-Sophia Bush hybrid. When caught listening to it, they behave as thirteen year-olds discovering loopholes in web blockers. It’s the closest Bruce’s gotten to payoff since he began moving around the world. If the interference isn’t coming from Emma’s family, it’s uncooperative bowels. So the “language” here is also that of sex.
It turns “Learn the Language” into a strange sexual ditty. The bulk of the plot concerns Bruce and Emma’s inhibited sex life. The days have become too many underneath her parents’ cramped summer house roof. They’re pent up. Emma’s apartment is still being fixed, so she and Bruce try to steal a blow job here, gussy up for sex there. They should’ve recognized their feeble efforts from the start. Sex under the parental radar isn’t inconspicuous sex. It breaks beds before anything starts. They’re caught around every corner. Emma’s parents are enduring a rough romantic go as well, but they’re at least free of the domain issue.
There’s also some accidental reflexivity. Poehler and Bornebusch are far less sensually enchanted than the tape. They could use its tricks—and its lessons. They execute the kisses and the suggestive blocking as if posing for amateur painters and 15 bucks. You can see the countdown in their heads each time they start up: three, two, one, Wait. In terms of the show, they don’t need to be dynamic lovers in order to be effective. They don’t really want it. But the writers do. With the title, it’s as if they’re shouting at Bruce: Pony up!
The episode’s economy eases the awkwardness. These writers have a knack for brevity. Some of the scenes are itty-bitty. The opener is moments long, plenty of time to establish the jovially unapologetic America-hater who turns Bruce into Judas. Canadian he says he is. How dare he? Hassan, a Middle-Eastern refugee, and his family survived American bombings. A couple members traded limbs for life. So he hates America. His character has three beats, each of them short. The joke is Hassan’s brand of hatred. It’s not vitriolic or horrifying or political. In talking about America, it’s as if he’s describing the older boy who always pissed on his sidewalk chalk drawings.
Each of the arcs, in fact, outside Bruce and Emma’s sexcapades, unfold one on top of the other. Olin counteracts some of her sentiment in the pilot. At first her Viveka was gloating about Birger’s height and masculine handsomeness. In “Learn the Language,” she admits to the wishfulness of her words—or rather, their nostalgia. Birger used to daunt with towering manliness. The memories warm her. But now they haven’t sat in a dark theater (see: like teenagers) since Ghostbusters. This sailor hat he wore, she says, oh this sailor hat. The second beat, later, is background: Emma on the phone with maintenance, trying to get her apartment straightened away and the hell out of her parents’ place, Viveka foregrounded in the shed, excavating that sailor hat from a box of memories. The third beat is re-ignition.
Her parents finally get to it with more enthusiasm than either Emma or Bruce—mostly Bruce—can muster. You can see it on Emma’s face: Why aren’t we as foxy? The show doesn’t play it out as anything more than an impotency gag. It doesn’t beg us to diagnose Bruce and Emma’s relationship. Bruce compensates for his uninspiring performance with the gushiest yuck-love: “You know everything about you is sexy to me.” Except lines like that, for Emma, work. We might roll our eyes, because we typically prefer cleverness or, you know, not adolescent cliché from our stories. But that line is this relationship: They aren’t sexual monsters or James Bond or even Don Draper. It’s their flavor. By the final shortcoming, Emma laments they aren’t animals. But they are: They’re love birds.
The show’s almost cute in the way it can’t move the needle. In nearly his first complete Swedish sentence, Bruce flubs dirty talk: “I want to screw dough.” This, Emma says, laughing, is the grossest thing she’s ever heard. I know people who would think that. Or flee too, like when Emma catches her parents preparing for doggy style. That’s it: To the hotel! Those people don’t remind me anything of these characters—but, hey, they exist. Non-missionary elderly sex with sailor caps seems representative of Sweden’s naughty ceiling. And that’d be more than they can handle. Poehler, on screen and in the writers’ room, is taming juvenility.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.