Families can be wonderful things.
They can be warm, nurturing and safe, a haven from the outside world where people can be more than a little unknowing of your true self and inadvertently cruel as a result.
But much as Hallmark and Disney might like to promote the idea that all families are this snug and cosy and endlessly, unconditionally supportive,, the truth is that pretty much all of them, yes, even the good ones, are dysfunctional as hell, just as apt to sting you as to offer solace.
Take the family of Home For Christmas’s Johanne (Ida Elise Broch), a highly-empathetic and engaged nurse who routinely goes above and beyond for her patients and who is by most estimations adulting quite nicely, thank you very much.
For all her accomplishments and demonstrated ability to make a reasonably functional though admittedly not perfect life for herself – her housemate and best friend says to her at one point that no one ever gets 100% of what they want and that something like 35 is enough to make you happy – her mother seems to be unwilling to accede to her daughter’s state of competent adultness unless she’s also got a boyfriend in tow.
In the opening scene at a dinner on 1 December to mark the start of the Christmas, Johanne is driven mad by her mother Jorid (Anette Hoff) and other family members’ fixation with her marital status, the implication always being that singledom is a barren, lonely, meaningless state from which no good can come, the pressure building until she finally blurts out “I have a boyfriend!”
This announcement is greeted, after initial stunned silence, by rapturous congratulations as if Johanne had just simultaneously created slice bread, ushered in the return of Jesus and ended world hunger for good.
It’s a comical moment in a romantic comedy stacked to the brims with them – the comic timing of Broch is immaculate, with her delivery of a slew of witty, sometimes sarcastic oneliners a masterclass in deft comic timing – but is also loaded with a lot of darker emotional subtext.
Johanne after all did have a boyfriend, the near-beatific Christian (at least that’s how her wildly insensitive family see him; he’s played by Stian Blipp) who dumped four years ago with very little explanation, so she is hardly a failure in the love and romance department.
But her family, who clearly do love her – her scenes with her dad Tor (Dennis Storhøi) are touching and quite open and honest – seem cruelly oblivious at times to the way their attitudes and ridiculously certain pronouncements, which pay no heed to the actual largely healthy state of Johanne’s life, affect her.
Admittedly these kinds of attitudes are amplified to an almost deafening degree at Christmas where the urgency to have everything perfect and lovely is almost crushing to almost everyone participating (even if you love the season) but even so, those scenes around the dining room table, where by the way Johanne is relegated to the equivalent of the kids’ table, are hard to watch as we watch her family demolishing her demoralising comment after eviscerating remark.
So having backed herself into a corner, or rather been backed into one, Johanne decides she has to make good on her panicked pronouncement with 24 days to find the man of her dreams and not look like a liar on Christmas Eve when the main Norwegian celebrations take place.
This plays much as you might expect it to.
A succession of terrible dates which involves an hilariously speed dating session (where she meets a hitman and a nerd who wants to have sex in real life and not just with virtual dragons), a plumber with anger issues who demolishes an escape rooms set-up and an ageing politician who is nice enough guy but the age of her parents, which becomes more than a little bit of an issue when he and Johanne end up as the same nude spa as her parents who are trying to rekindle their marriage.
She does meet one sweet and cute guy with whom she has sex marathons and who bakes her fresh bread, but Jonas (Felix Sandman) but he’s 19-years-old and not, for obvious reasons, ready to settle down yet.
Hovering in the background too is bartender friend Thomas (Kingsford Sayor), who clearly likes her more than just as a regular customer, and a doctor she works with, Dr Henrik (Oddgeir Thune), clearly after more than a working relationship.
It’s a stereotypical rom-com dating mess but what sets Home For Christmas apart from the pack, in addition of course to Broch’s nuanced, witty and emotive performance (her eyes alone are an entire acting class in how to minimally but powerfully convey a range of emotions), is that it laces all the hilarity with a great deal of sobering reality.
Johanne, pressured by her family, and for a while herself, has to deal with all kinds of weird, strange or emotionally unavailable men, and while it’s funny as far as it goes, Home For Christmas isn’t afraid to explore the toll it takes on our feisty but beleaguered protagonist.
She tries her best, undertaking all kinds of activities and with men well and truly outside of her comfort zone, all out of a misplaced need by her mother to see her settled.
Johannes realises towards the end that she has made an impossible and damaging pact with herself and on Christmas Eve invites three guests, who shall remain nameless in this review so the full import and impact of her choices can have the desired effect, who defy her mother’s expectations of who she will be happy with.
It’s a masterful way to end season 1 of the show – the ending is quite the cliffhanger with Johannes opening the door to a person we never see but she is happy to have before her; here’s hoping Netflix ponies up for a second series – underlining with humour and more than a little biting familial putting in their place than we should never be defined by someone else and that Christmas, with heavily-loaded expectations galore, is not the time to be reinforcing weird ideas of what makes us an acceptable person.
Home For Christmas is a true delight – richly funny and darkly revealing, it benefits from an accomplished willingness to be honest about love, family and the expectations that come with both, superlative performances especially from Broch, a goofy and quirky approach at times which leavens out its more angsty moments beautifully and a setting in Christmas which is both magically pretty and confrontingly all too real, proving once again that the most wonderful time of the year can also be the toughest.