Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the Swedish adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s best-selling novel Beartown, which is coming to HBO.
Scandinavian crime dramas are famous for being bleak and gripping. HBO has given viewers some of the best TV that’s ever aired. A marriage between the two seems all but guaranteed to be a dark delight. Yet the Swedish import Beartown (in Swedish: Björnstad), based on the best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, is a reminder — for better and worse — that we play a dangerous game when we make assumptions.
Beartown, Sweden, is just about done for. The factory that kept their local economy afloat is failing, and their once-successful hockey team is now riddled with has-beens. The town’s only hope for salvation comes in the form of Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg), a former NHL player who has just returned to his hometown to turn the local team around. He brings his family with him, including chill, music-loving daughter Maya (Miriam Ingrid, who seems to be Sweden’s answer to Joey King). Soon, Andersson is coaching the Bears to victory with the help of star player Kevin (Oliver Dufåker) and speedy underclassman Amat (Najdat Rustom).
The official descriptions for both the book and television version of Beartown are tight-lipped about the story’s central conflict, but it’s safe to say that if you click over to Beartown hoping for a rousing sports saga, you won’t find what you’re looking for. The drama uses the hockey team as a signifier of a certain type of culture, one in which crude jokes rule the locker room and the language of winning is so often framed around “taking what’s yours.” The series takes place around the end of an important season; if the team wins, more money will be poured into the community to fund sports and the local economy. Yet the game itself is secondary to what’s happening off the rink. When a victory night party turns into a traumatic event, the town is quickly torn asunder by accusations, backstabbing, and violence, with the coach’s daughter, Maya, at the center of it all.
As with the “dark Swedish import on HBO” elevator pitch, this sounds a bit more thrilling on paper than it actually is. The show is as muted as its winter backdrop, blanketed not in snow but in a cool sense of grim solemnity that permeates every scene that doesn’t include Ingrid’s Maya. When characters do show emotion, it doesn’t always ring true, as when nearly every one of the town’s residents viciously turns on one character. With only five episodes to work with, Beartown has the opposite problem of so many crime dramas: it doesn’t have enough room to breathe. Stripped of the expansive context of a four-hundred-page novel, some characters seem one-note, while others shift alliance in ways that contradict what little we do know about them. We know that these boys would do anything to win, not because we feel or understand their emotions in any real way, but because we’re told that they really want to win.
Beartown also uses the framework of rape culture and toxic sports culture to build its story, but instead of saying anything meaningful, it revels in the common misconceptions surrounding sexual violence. It’s never a TV show’s job to educate, but by including repeated, constant, hateful victim blaming without ever course-correcting or laying the proper groundwork to explain how it came to be, Beartown ends up feeling like a story half-told. It would be one thing if Beartown was an exercise in ambiguity, asking audiences to draw connections between the way athletes are trained and praised and the impulsive, violent acts they’re drawn to off the rink. Unfortunately, the series isn’t ambiguous; it’s simply underwritten.
Aside from some icily dazzling cinematography by Petrus Sjövik, Ingrid is the series’ highlight. Her character, Maya, is a sympathetic if familiar teen, a before-and-after picture in action. On one side, there’s a young girl, her shy smile punctuated by braces, her crushes as intense as her urge to make new friends. On the other, that youthful teen has vanished, leaving a resigned and fearful stranger in her place. Beartown fiddles with hunting metaphors, and it’s all too easy to imagine Maya as a prey animal.
Beartown isn’t all bad, and at times it is compelling. Those who go in cold will find a few grim surprises, and the final scenes include some of the short series’ most effectively chilling and understated moments. Overall, though, this adaptation takes a once-rich story and strips it down until it becomes too thin to support the weight of its own heavy themes. Despite its predatory namesake, Beartown is more like a set of some small creature’s footprints in the snow: there and then gone, leaving only the most minor and fleeting impression.
Beartown debuts in America on HBO and HBO Max on February 22nd.