4 out of 5
Written by: Mikko Pöllä
covers season 1
This should be such a typical fish-out-of-water comedy series, and – in my old man grumbling – I note that it stars a Youtube personality, which I should just get over at this point as the new mining ground for talent, but despite whatever assumptions to which these comments might’ve led me, Kalifornian Kommando (or ‘Perfect Commando,’ or ‘Californian Commando,’ depending on where you’re watching this) is actually a very solid, lowkey comedy, juggling genre stereotypes with avoidance of the same, and quite perfectly casting its male and female counterparts and leads.
Americans Van (Kian Lawley) and his girlfriend, Rachel (Katherine Hughes) are out to visit some Finnish family on Van’s mother’s side. The duo seem to form a particular stereotype themselves, with the shallow, tattooed cool kid boyfriend and his doting, too-patient-with-him girlfriend, and given events to come, we can assume that boy will learn lessons about true love and cherishing life and etcetera, and trials and tribulations will happen before a happy ending. Those events: upon arrival in Finland, Van is detained: turns out due to his lineage, he’s required to serve in the Finnish Defense Forces, starting immediately. The couple are separated: Van is forcefully “escorted” to his training as a commando; Rachel ends up staying with Van’s cousin, facing culture clash as she realizes she’s quite unwelcome in the house (shared with the cousin’s two rap band-mates) and running out of money to support her time in the country.
So combine our tropes, and surely we have Americans making funny faces at Finns while finding out what it takes to get to into one another’s arms.
And yes – we essentially trace this path – but also no, not at all. Firstly, the couple dynamic is a bit off from where we started: Van is shallow as heck – turns out his parents actually were aware of this military loophole, and encouraged him onto the trip as a character building pitch – but so is Rachel. They seem to be a couple of consequence: bonded over shared good looks but not much else. They have a camaraderie that suggests time spent together, but their chatter is completely absent of “standard” relationship dynamics beyond that. Van doesn’t really care about getting back to Rachel, his sole concern is getting out of the army, and Rachel doesn’t care about getting back with Van – she just wants to know if she should stay in Finland or head home. But, to actors Lawley’s and Hughes’ immense credit, we don’t dislike either of these characters, while perhaps disliking their childlike personalities. And the script and actors don’t shortcut their relative growths over the course of the 10-episode season, as each maintains their general disenchantment, but they do each “mature” simply through acceptance of their current lots, and dealing with finding their ways through. This is a more realistic example of what happens to (some of) us as we age, not really shedding some of those core personality traits, but, like, learning to work with the hand we’re dealt. This doesn’t prevent each character from doubling back at every opportunity – Van is constantly scheming on getting out of the commandos; Rachel is half-lying to her housemates in order to make some cash on the side – but this is coupled with dawning awareness of the people around them, and how their actions impact them.
There’s something else that may be notable in this description: Kalifornian Kommando, despite it’s title suggesting focus on Van – and the structure of the implying that his story is the primary one – we spend a near equal share with both he and Rachel, and, as a result, the characters around them as well. This is where things sometimes break down into goofy comedy norms, as Van’s army buddies and Rachel’s housemates are all oddballs, but in each cluster of side characters, there are one or two who are allotted some additional development that makes our time with them engaging. And the oddballs are, generally, pretty funny. That the show is a Finnish production also swerves way around those fish-out-of-water norms – there’s much self awareness with how it portrays Finnish culture, but also an understanding of American culture. So the humor comes much more from the general ridiculousness of the situation than any “you talk and do things funny” lameness.
At ten, half-hour episodes, the pace is quick, but there’s a bit of an imbalance in terms of when the “main” plot – Van getting back home – goes on the backburner versus bottle episodes. When Van or Rachel seem all-in to their current setup seems kind of random. However, the brief runtime and above-average scripting makes this a small concern, especially when all of those bottle episode moments are just as much fun as any of the other antics.