You can often tell when a TV show is an adaptation of a book, because you can almost feel the spine in the story. Beartown on HBOMax certainly feels that way. Adapted from the popular book by Fredrik Backman, it centers around a hockey-obsessed town in Northern Sweden. But don’t let that scare you off if you’re not a lace-em-up type of hockey fan. The sport, while a major focus, is just another character. You don’t need to understand hockey at all to follow the plot of Beartown.
That said, if you do love hockey, like I do, it’s just a bonus.
We open up with the titular Beartown — Björnstad — welcoming home a conquering hero. Peter Andersson was one of the very rare, very lucky ones who “got out,” played years as a professional hockey player in the NHL and made a life for himself away from the dreaded factory floor where all of the lesser Björnstad players go to die.
But now he’s back, “for the money” he jokes as he takes the helm of the Senior team, basically a men’s league. Beartown has seen better days and it takes all of about six minutes of his first practice with the Seniors to know that he’s been duped. Comprised of men his age and older, many of them friends from childhood, Andersson quickly figures out that Beartown seniors have lost all their decent players and the remaining few are hacks and bumblers. He has nothing to work with as a coach.
Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about coaching:
“There are two types of coaches: coaches who coach great players and ex-coaches.”
Andersson confronts the League Manager, yelling about the bullshit they fed him about the team being elite. “They suck!” He yells, and then notices that the team can hear him. He tries to apologize, but the damage is done.
The junior team, however, has a younger version of him on their roster. A player named Kevin Erdahl, who has what it takes to make it to the big leagues.
One problem is that Erdahl is the son of Andersson’s old local enemy (Tobias Zilliacus), who is now the town’s wealthiest hockey patron.
Another problem is that the junior team already has a coach.
None of it stops Andersson. He bullies his way into the junior team’s bench and demotes the coach, and he quickly forms a bond with young Kevin Erdahl.
Meanwhile, at home, his children and wife… (played by the gorgeous and supremely talented Aliette Opheim from one of the greatest TV shows ever: Amazon’s Patriot)
…are acclimating to the move and trying to come to terms with the loss of a child. It’s been a year since they lost their youngest one and Peter can’t cope with it. He just swallows the loss and moves on, not even able to attend a small candle lighting ceremony the mom and remaining siblings have on the anniversary of the child’s birthday.
Beartown has rightly been compared to Friday Night Lights, in that hockey is as important to these small town Swedes as football is to families in West Texas. There’s that same “ticket out” lottery for the best players and the same lifelong prison sentence for the also-rans. In one scene, local moms are complaining about the amount of math homework, saying that their sons have more important things to do, like play hockey.
When Peter Andersson takes over the junior team, he ratchets up the intensity, getting in players’ faces, pushing them to become better. It’s a very non-Ted Lasso approach, methodology-wise, but it nets results. To the asshole on the team, he says lean into it. Be the biggest asshole on the ice. Drive the other team crazy. To the overweight player he says, you’re huge, now get bigger. I want 40 more pounds on you by spring. He sizes up all of the players and pushes them to become the highest evolution of their particular skill set. Unlike Ted Lasso, who champions belief and self-actualization, there’s a gritty reality to the world Andersson coaches in, and one that will resonate with fans of any sport: win or go home.
And it works! The team starts to win and the culture starts to change.
That said, it was kind of sobering to see that testosterone and bullying and dumb jocks are the same in idyllic Sweden as they are anywhere else. I mean, I know it in my heart, it just sucks to have it confirmed so concisely.
From a viewer perspective, I can scarcely contain my excitement that we’re getting quality programming like this from places like Sweden and Italy. Hopefully you won’t mind subtitles, and it may just scratch the itch we all have from being cooped up in the same place without access to travel for a year. When you start watching Beartown, you realize immediately that you’re in good hands. Directing, writing, cinematography–it’s all on point, and I’m really invested in lead actor Ulf Stenberg.
I can’t get enough of the face of this actor, Jacob Nordenson, who plays league manager Sune.
Look at the mug on this beautiful bastard! I want to look at it all day!
This show really knows how to beard.
I’m curious about how some of the casting choices will play out. There’s this…I don’t know…sort of adolescent roundness to the features of two of the teenage actors and it’s kind of refreshing. It makes them feel sort of young and awkward. Namely, Oliver Dufåker as budding superstar Kevin Erdahl…
…and Miriam Ingrid, who plays Peter’s daughter Maya.
By the end of the second episode, the die has been cast and we can only wait to see how everything will shake out. Episode two featured a moment where I felt my breath actually come out of me, but it’s probably not what you might think. It was after that. (You’ll know it when you hear a character say “thanks.”) Oof. My stomach tightens up just thinking about that moment. Brilliant filmmaking.
I really appreciated the fact that despite having a bombshell element to it, and a limited run of only five episodes, that Beartown didn’t open with the big, inciting event and build from there. It established the plot and the characters first, before lighting the proverbial fuse.
Once you get comfortable, the spark heads inexorably for the dynamite. I can’t wait to see how the season finishes up.
Catch Beartown Monday nights on HBOMax.
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