Starting an episode of Peacock’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is like opening an overstuffed closet. What pours out is a lot of joy and charm and swearing. Every frame drips with personality, from the people and the production.
It’s a delight from the opening seconds, when the series opens with Amy Poehler’s narration telling us “everyone is going to die” over a montage of happy-looking people, and then assures us this will not become a slasher flick—”not these people.”
I have not read Margareta Magnusson’s book, but from what I’ve read about it and its subtitle (“How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter”), I had a general idea.
Amy Poehler’s summary works catches us all up: “getting your shit together before you die so others don’t have to do it.”
While the technique is adapted from a book, the underlying structure borrows from A&E’s Hoarders and the Niecy Nash-hosted Clean House.
Some of its worst instincts, though, come from Netflix’s now-tired Queer Eye, which shares a production company (Scout Productions) and a surface-level presentation with The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.
Experts—an organizer (Ella Engström), designer (Johan Svenson), and psychologist (Katarina Blom)—help organize a person or couple’s house, and do some emotional excavation at the same time.
Together, they sort things, they talk about things, they throw things away. The subjects are not people suffering from hoarding disorder, they just have a lot of crap, like so many of us.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning’s title sequence and interviews have a Wes Anderson aesthetic, with centered subjects looking directly into the camera lens. The editing is playful, with on-screen explanations, and occasional sound effects.
The show is not afraid to swear in its narration or title cards, in a way that comes across as reflecting the humanity, not performative. It’s just fun to watch.
That’s especially true of the first episode, “Confessions of a Lounge Singer.” Its subject, Suzie Sanderson, is such a dynamic character that she outshines the three and carries the episode.
She’s introduced as “a 75-year-old pothead with an appetite for adventure and men” who has clutter and stuff, including “penises. Lots and lots of penises.” She calls herself a “horny old broad,” and needs her own television program.
For fika, a coffee break, the three cast members sit at white tables with yellow flowers under an umbrella that’s been set up in front of a pop-up coffee shop in a well-appointed trailer. The budget is on the screen here, and it looks terrific.
The experts chat, and are quickly in hysterics about a misunderstanding, which turns into throwing out “she’s fucked” and “she wants to get fucked.”
“Let’s make America fuckable again,” Johan says. “That’s why we’re here.”
They’re certainly here to make America laugh. But it’s what he says later that’s at the heart of most of these episodes: “America thinks they need to fill their houses with a lot of stuff to make them happy.” We consume, and we make other’s lives miserable by forcing them to deal with it.
That’s the implicit message, but the process of getting to a less-cluttered life is much more joyful.
The deep well of charm, however, masks the relative shallowness of the process that we’re being exposed to.
Marie Kondo used her Netflix show to share her philosophy and practices from her book, but The Swedish Art of Death Cleaning isn’t used in the same way. After watching several episodes of the Peacock show, I don’t know anything more about the book than I did before watching.
At its most-interesting moments, the show’s Swedish stars compare American and Swedish people’s disposition and orientation toward stuff and emotions. In its worst, it pours on so much sentimentalism that it’s cloying.
Like on Queer Eye, the transformation happens off camera, and that’s where most of the organizing takes place, too. (I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a team helping behind the scenes.) Sometimes the editing literally fast forwards past the work.
We only get fragments, and while the general ideas are actionable, the show is not really interested in the process.
Even Netflix’s Get Organized with the Home Edit, which was mostly about buying expensive things (“product”) to put all of your other things in, gave more practical advice during its organizing.
There’s more talking and tears than trashing, more reveals than recycling. That is not a complaint!
Hoarders may have been more insightful, but what’s on screen in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is completely watchable, often inspirational, and gets its basic message across. Maybe that’s enough to motivate, but it’s definitely enough to entertain.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
A life-affirming, joyful, often hilarious show about getting rid of unwanted shit. B+
What works for me:
- The playful editing and production design
- Amy Poehler’s narration
- The empathy and acceptance
What could be better:
- More actual Swedish Death Cleaning process
- The psychologist feels wedged in