Why you should care
Because watching other awkward families trying to get along will make you feel better about your own.
Within the first two minutes of the very first episode, you know you are watching something delightfully understated, painfully complicated and yet totally hilarious. What appears to be two 40-something couples have gathered (not all willingly) for a therapy session to dissect what the woman who arranged the meeting describes as “a party” and the other female attendee prefers to call “a mass suicide.”
The Swedish TV dramedy Bonus Family tells the story of lovebirds Lisa and Patrik’s attempts to make their own relationship work despite the eternal complications that come from their bonusfamiljen (bonus family) — a uniquely Swedish word that refers to an increasingly universal concept: the family gained when parents separate and recouple. A fourth season has just been given the go-ahead, so now’s the time to binge-watch the first three (all on Netflix) with your own awkward family.
While the Swedish language does have a word that translates as “stepfamily,” its connotations are “not very welcoming,” says the show’s co-creator Moa Herngren. The word bonusfamiljen (and its derivatives bonusmamma and bonuspappa) was coined to put a more positive spin on the concept. Herngren — who comes from a bonus family so large she calls it a “flock” — points to pluses like “having many adults to talk to as you grow up” and benefiting from lifelong relationships beyond your nuclear family.
Bonus Family features pregnancy tests, abortions, concealed terminal illnesses and never-ending arguments about furniture.
But getting back to the Persian-carpeted therapists’ (who are also a couple) office. Our protagonists are joined by their exes, boy-like Martin, who has two kids with Lisa, and no-nonsense Katja, who has one kid with Patrik. This chaotic nucleus provides “all the ingredients a storyteller dreams of,” says Herngren. “Drama, tragedy, comedy … ”
And then some. Bonus Family features pregnancy tests, abortions, concealed terminal illnesses and never-ending arguments about furniture. One of the biggest narrative drivers is the stormy relationship between Lisa and Patrik’s respective 10-year-old sons — hell-raising Eddie and bookish William. An example episode: Chronically phobic Patrik would probably forbid his own son from owning a pet snake, but the dynamic shifts when it’s Eddie asking (and then — you guessed it — the snake ends up in Patrik’s bed).
The best part? Bonus Family is entirely based on collective fact. “All the people in the writing room have either grown up in bonus families or have their own bonus families,” says Herngren. (They once tried a writer from a “normal” family but it didn’t work out, she adds.) And they all spend a lot of time arguing their favorite characters’ points of view. But, adds joint head writer Ditta Bongenhielm, “the reality of our own families is always worse than what we write.”
Luckily there’s a hilarious cast of loopy but believable fringe characters to ensure that the narrative doesn’t veer too far toward tragedy. The relationship between Martin’s mother and her live-in lesbian lover Gugge (tragically cut short by the death of the actor who plays Gugge) is both heartwarming and hilarious. And it’s impossible not to laugh at the behind-the-scenes bickering of the therapist couple (schadenfreude is always a winner) or the fiendish antics of Filip, the school counselor. The dinner party he hosts in season two, episode 10 will go down as some of my favorite TV — ever.
The first season, which aired in Sweden in 2016, was an instant hit (it won the Kristallen, aka “Swedish Emmy,” for best TV drama) because — both writers surmise — it tapped into issues that a lot of Swedes were already dealing with. Sweden has one of the highest divorce rates in Europe and bonus families are a fact of life.
What’s surprised the people behind the show is the international response. A German remake is underway and Herngren and Bongenhielm get a kick out of receiving fan letters from Singaporeans and San Franciscans asking: “Have you actually been inside my house?”
Bonus Family’s creators are proud of the fact that they’ve given people from bonus families a “way in” to talk about their issues, as Bongenhielm puts it. It is “really nice to serve this purpose,” adds Herngren. “We all hoped it could lead to something good.”
Good? It’s the best show I’ve watched all year. Bonus Family is sidesplitting, thought-provoking and beautifully filmed with great acting. And — as you sit watching it on your 13-seater couch — it may even make you thankful for the relative calm of your own life.
Seasons one, two and three of Bonus Family are now showing on Netflix. Non-Swedish speakers will need the subtitles, which do a great job of capturing the nuanced dialogue.