TV: Beartown

The Swedish series Beartown (2020) fills a very particular niche, and while there’s definitely a dismal worldview underlying this stark, hard-hitting hockey drama, it’s a compelling construct. It’s set in a remote, rural town in Sweden called Björnstad (“Beartown”), a community on its last legs with little more than a factory and a hockey arena keeping it afloat. In a last-ditch effort to save the foundering local franchise, former NHL player Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg) is recruited to coach. The hope is that his experience and expertise can reverse the team’s fortunes, sustaining sponsorship interest in the club and keeping it alive for another season. Peter grew up in Björnstad, and his celebrated homecoming may be a chance to enter a new phase of his career, which foundered in Canada in the wake of family tragedy. When Peter arrives, though, he doesn’t like what he sees. The senior team is a disaster, and coaching them is an obvious dead end. But the junior team has promise, thanks to the wildly talented Kevin Erdahl (Oliver Dufåker), a pro prospect single-handedly keeping the team competitive. Kevin’s a troubled kid, thanks to his demanding father Mats (Tobias Zilliacus) and the heady pressure of sustaining an entire town’s hopes with his talent. Peter muscles his way into coaching the junior team, looking to build a supporting roster around Kevin to complement his skill. His efforts bear fruit, propelling Beartown up the rankings—until Kevin commits a heinous act of sexual violence that threatens to derail the entire community’s hopes and dreams.

Beartown lured me in with its focus on hockey and its striking Nordic landscapes, but ultimately kept me with its sturdy dramatic themes. It might be described as a hybrid of Friday Night Lights and Unbelieveable: a sports drama about a community that revolves desperately around its team, mixed with unnerving drama about rape culture. The former angle gives Beartown a deceptively rallying start, especially when Peter starts motivating his team, which includes identifying a new on-ice role for Kevin’s best friend Benji (Otto Fahlgren) and recruiting a soft-spoken immigrant named Amat (Najdat Rustom) as a speedy new winger. Is Peter going to becoming the team’s Coach Taylor and lift the team to new heights? As it turns out, though, Beartown isn’t interested in sports-centered inspiration. Kevin’s crime shines a light on the toxicity of the city’s obsession with the sport, as demanding parents and monofocused fans rally around Kevin and make a pariah of his victim, Maya (Miriam Ingrid). The sport is their escape, and the one chance at a better life their kids may ever get. But the culture that encourages them to turn a blind eye to Kevin’s crime has far-reaching emotional ramifications: on Maya, of course, but on Maya’s mother Mira (Aliette Opheim), and the team’s more sensitive, sympathetic players like Benji and Amat, and the community overall. As the drama unfolds, Peter realizes that the very lessons he’s instilled in his players reinforce the dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all mentality that’s tearing the town apart. In Beartown, hockey stands in for toxic male tribalism: the need to dominate, to humiliate, to take whatever you want and win at all costs. (When Peter asks the team what hockey demands of them, it’s Kevin who responds with the correct answer: “Everything.” In an American drama, this might be slanted as a virtuous sentiment; here, it’s a chilling indictment of the sport’s ruthlessness.) As such, the show is something of a microcosm for the world’s greater ills: an indictment of its cruel status quo, and a sympathetic letter to the people regularly damaged by it. None of this makes it a particularly pleasant watch, of course, but it’s a compellingly executed one, and like most Scandinavian shows it’s beautifully shot with striking cinematography. The performances are convincing, with Ingrid and Fahlgren standing out for their vulnerability, and while part of me left the series craving a softer touch, the rest couldn’t help but acknowledge the show’s powerful point: when winning is all that matters, everybody loses.

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