Katarina Blom, Ella Engström and Johan Svenson
Godfrey Riddle, Johan Svenson, Ella Engström and Katarina Blom
Flora Haug, Johan Svenson, Katarina Blom and Ella Engström
Growing up in Georgia, J.J. Duncan recalls, "I was writing the kids' Thanksgiving plays. I thought I was gonna be a screenwriter — the female John Hughes."
When she moved to Los Angeles, she soon realized telling stories could take many shapes. After working in casting (Survivor, The Amazing Race), she quickly landed a job as an associate show producer on The Amazing Race. It became clear to her how much of an impact an unscripted show could have on the zeitgeist.
Now Duncan has the chance to make her own mark on pop culture as the showrunner of Peacock's The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, based on the New York Times bestselling book by Margareta Magnusson.
Duncan had just finished overseeing postproduction on the nineteenth season of Project Runway, when Scout Productions reached out to share that — alongside Paper Kite, a production company founded by Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation) — they had acquired rights to the book. The rather unconventional title was explained as a Swedish concept that encourages people to face their mortality and sort through their belongings, so that others don't have to after they're gone.
The material deeply resonated, as Duncan and her wife were personally experiencing tremendous grief after losing their eleven-year-old son, Mason, to leukemia. "Because I'm a writer, my catharsis with my grief process is to write. So I'd been writing about why people couldn't talk about death."
When this project fell into her lap, Duncan knew it was kismet. She'd been thinking, "We're biologically wired to survive. And yet, we are all born, and we are all going to die. That's the great equalizer. So the whole point is, then, 'Why can't we talk about it?'"
The show is guided by the "Head, Heart, Hand" dream team of three Swedes: Ella Engström, an organizer; Katarina Blom, a psychologist and Johan Svenson, an interior designer. In each of the eight episodes, they help people process the raw complexity of facing death, while creating spaces that feel reflective and comfortable.
What makes the series unique is its ability to balance death with humor. Amy Poehler's funny commentary is sprinkled in via voiceover, which serves to move the audience through some of the most difficult moments. "It's cliché to say laughter is the best medicine, but what helped me when my son was dying is we would tell jokes and we would all laugh," Duncan shares. "And the joy we found in his final days, weeks, months — that's the part I hold on to now. That's where we found our true and our best selves."
Feeling incredibly confident in the Scout Productions and Paper Kite team, Duncan says, "When I saw Amy Poehler was part of a project with death in the name, I knew we were gonna do it right. Everyone's gonna find themselves somewhere in a story we've told."
Since working on the show, Duncan has been inspired to create more projects around the theme. "Had you told me five years ago that death was going to emerge as my storytelling [focus], I'd have run away. Yet here I am."
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is executive produced by showrunner J.J. Duncan, Amy Poehler, Kate Arend, David Collins, Michael Williams, Rob Eric, Renata Lombardo, Stephen Morrison, Faye Stapleton, Margareta Magnusson, Jane Magnusson and Susanna Lea. The series is produced by Scout Productions, Paper Kite Productions and Universal Television Alternative Studio.