Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Niklasons - Hasse Ekman goes sitcom

One of the most long-lived and prominent of TV-genres is the sitcom. The history of sitcoms go back almost to the beginning of mass media, and was popular on radio before it came to TV. BBC's Pinwright's Progress that came out right after the second world war, the first episode was shown November 29, 1946, is sometimes called the first sitcom for TV. After that there was no stopping it, especially not after the phenomenal success of the American I Love Lucy (1951-1957, which then continued under different names until 1960.) To Sweden, native sitcoms came rather late, but it should come as no surprise that when it finally arrive Hasse Ekman directed the first one, Niklasons (1965). It is remarkable how close to the formula it sticks, while at the same time, already in the first episode, it is full of key Ekman themes.

The sitcom (situation comedy) is often defined as a TV-series based on 25 minutes long sequences and where each episode stands on its own. It is meant to be funny, the humour arising from ordinary day-to-day events. At the centre of the set is often a sofa, and a staircase is lurking in the back. So it is in Niklasons. It is about a middle class family of four; father, mother, daughter and son. The father is a newspaper columnist, the mother a house wife, the daughter a grown-up teenager and the son around 10, with a very mature and self-righteous disposition. It is amiable enough, and probably captures rather well a Swedish middle class outlook in the mid-60s. It was an ambitious undertaking, with two of the greatest stars in Swedish cinema for most of the post-war era, Sickan Carlsson and Karl-Arne Holmsten, playing the parents. It was also a unique co-production between the large, and usually competitive, film production companies SF and Sandrews, working together with SVT, Swedish Television.

What is interesting for me with regard to my thesis is that in the first episode mother Niklason is taking Spanish lessons, because it is a global language and when she can speak it "the whole of South America is open to us, a whole continent." (this of course forgets that they speak Portuguese in Brazil...). She also explains to her children that when they grow old, she and her husband would like to move somewhere warm and pleasant. What is funny about this is that in almost every single film Ekman has done, this is always what the main characters feels. South America is called the promised land over and over again, as they either talk about it, or go there. (Or at least Spain.) That Ekman felt strongly about this himself is obvious, considering he moved to Spain in 1964 and never moved back. That means that he had technically retired from filmmaking when he was asked to do Niklasons, but he came up from Spain, shot it, and then went back again.

Another typical thing about Niklasons from an Ekman perspective is the meta elements. The family is obsessed by a TV-series called Forsman blir överläkare (Forsman becomes ward doctor or something like that), which seems to be awful and pretentious. The star of that series, doctor Forsman, is played by Ekman as the most conceited, pompous and self-righteous man on TV, who gets to kiss every nurse in sight, and performs miraculous deeds, saving Sweden and Swedes from illness and death. It is very funny, and very appealing.

Genre definitions are often problematic, since they generalise and simplify things, sometimes to the extent of making them pointless. This is true for TV as well as for film of course. The definition I gave above of sitcoms is not really relevant, since plenty of sitcoms are not like that. Another more broad definition is that sitcoms are comedies based around the family and the work-place, and by that definition it covers a large variety of shows and series. It might not be particularly interesting to analyse as a general subject, since it covers hundreds of series over several decades. So while Niklasons is unquestionably a sitcom, that is just a starting point. It can be discussed from the perspective of gender, ideology, authorship, finance, industry, sociology, all aspects potentially enlightening and revealing. I will not do that now of course, but an essay on Niklasons is warranted.
This post was upgraded and corrected on 2015-02-18

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