The 12th annual ATX TV Festival has ended, but some people leave a lasting impression and linger on. So is the case with J.J. Duncan. She’s an Executive Producer and showrunner. I discovered she was on a panel to discuss the impossibly named show, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. That was enough to set me on a straight path to meet her. This woman, alongside Executive Producer and co-founder of Scout Productions David Collins, are responsible for the month old and highly original (philosophically and in content) show currently airing on Peacock.
Maybe you’ve not heard of the term showrunner before. According to Google, the showrunner has overall creative authority and management responsibility for a television program. The show’s vision does not come from the freelance or even the staff writer but from the showrunner.
Project Runway season 19 asked her to be involved in the show. “Everything about it felt like kismet.”
“Because of where you are in your own life?”
“But do you know where I was in my life then?”
I did not.
“Well, my wife and I experienced the loss of my son in 2020. He was 11 years old, and he died of Leukemia. We were experiencing death, and when I saw the script, it was as if this show was written for me to produce. It talked about death, but in another context, in a way unlike I had ever heard.” She was in a space where she recognized that people do not know how to talk about death. In America! The show was cathartic for her.
Duncan’s a writer and was in the middle of writing about the topic. “When I learned this was a show where Swedes knew how to talk about death, I was immensely attracted. Preparing you for death and cleaning your house in a way that allowed me to process my experience seemed like too much of a coincidence to pass up.”
I wondered aloud if this was the year of the Swedes. What with the American remake of A Man Called Otto, a minimalist communicator. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (for America) takes an environmental and minimalist approach to the material things that pile up in one’s life. “The title makes everybody blink and say, huh?”. Yes, it sure does, I thought.
The show is more about life than death. Collected things, junk, souvenirs, furniture, photographs, keepsakes, you name it, to get put into piles: throw out (recycle or upcycle), keep, or give away to loved ones and those who would like to have the items being ‘death cleaned.’
The premise of the show is simple. Three Swedes, an organizer, a psychologist, and a designer visit Americans in their homes; in Season One, these homes are in Kansas City, MI. I asked J.J. why Kansas City.
We wanted a place representative of America. KS has a downtown, cool area, suburbs, and countryside. The show’s heroes are real people, not actors.
The Americans are called heroes and are taught by the Swedish death cleaners how to deal, cope and accept the death of a loved one through the reflective practice of “cleaning” – before or after a loved one dies. This show is its antithesis to Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.
Unlike Americans, who pay for storage fees, the Swedes think it is absurd and wasteful. The death cleaners send several poignant and essential life messages to the American TV audience:
- Be mindful of what you collect, hoard, or save. Once a loved one dies, someone else will be responsible for the things.
- Better to have less than more
- Accept death as part of life; don’t be squeamish or think it’s taboo to discuss because, as the Swedes say, “we’re all gonna die.”
- Prepare for a loved one’s death by cleaning out everything unnecessary before they pass away.
There’s a voiceover with Amy Poehler, who gives commentary throughout the season. She got the rights to the book, which is the basis for the show. She’s a good person with a big heart, says Duncan.
How did she choose the heroes? I curiously asked. J.J. Duncan explained, “It’s a casting process. People nominated others based on a listing in a bookstore or local places. Do you know someone who wants to clean out their stuff? We used contests, recommendations, and word-of-mouth. Scout Productions had done Queer Eye in the city and was familiar with the landscape. Kansas City welcomes productions. We also cast the Swedes. They did not know one another before this show and, throughout the process, became good friends and grew closer. The heroes also became family-like with the cast, crew, and production company.”
She adds, “I don’t know where I’ve done a show where everyone has a different version of what death cleaning means. It was hard to pick eight heroes. We picked fun people with a story that made sense for our death cleaners to come over from Sweden.”
In every episode, the Swedes take a coffee break, known in Swedish as ‘fika.’ It’s an integral part of Swedish culture. Come hell or high water; Swedes will take a break at a specific time for coffee. (The same is true in The Netherlands). But besides that, the show is a commingling of head, heart, and body. Ella, the organizer (whose outfits are a big plus for me), is the head; Kat, the psychologist, is the heart; and Jouen, the designer, is the body. All things being equal, these three death cleaners are the perfect anecdote to what could otherwise be a tremendously challenging situation without their expertise. My takeaway from this heartwarming show is this: before stuff overtakes your home, become a death cleaner before everything piles up. That way, you can appreciate the beauty of memory with the living loved ones.