Lilyhammer is a new show that Netflix is premiering right now — in fact, you can watch the entire, eight-episode first season streaming on Netflix’s site, if that’s how you want to spend today’s eight-hour work day, though you may not want to tell your boss. Speaking of the boss, Lilyhammer stars Steven Van Zandt, from the soon-to-tour E Street Band and from The Sopranos. It’s the latter job, however, not the musical one, that got Van Zandt his first starring role: He’s a New York gangster who’s relocated to the freezing cold city of Lillehammer, Norway, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Lilyhammer is the first weekly series streamed on – Netflix. Van Zandt plays Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, a mobster who arrives in Lillehammer after ratting to the Feds about his crime boss. (The series takes its title from the way Frank pronounces the city’s name.) Given how tight-lipped he often was as The Sopranos’ Silvio,Van Zandt proves surprisingly adroit at the gentle cultural-confusion comedy Lilyhammer attempts. As Frank – excuse me, his witnes–protection name is “Giovanni Henrikson” — he’s essentially exporting Silvio to Norway, flirting with a sweet teacher he meets, Sigrid (Marian Saastad Ottesen).
It’s not all laughs, though – Van Zandt’s character has to use a gun and get tough with various locals and at least one animal. He gets the best of his enemies in a gun fight, and, while on a train, roughs up an irritating young man who’s bothering passengers with his loud boom-box. (Hip-hop: The international way for young people to irritate their elders.) The tone aimed for here seems to be a cross between Fargo and Northern Exposure. (Quaint locals, female chief of police, lots of shivering.) At the same time, Lilyhammer is not a show made to cash in on the recent popularity of far more bleak Scandinavian thrillers such as the novels of, say, Jo Nesbo or Karen Fossum. Lilyhammer splits the difference between lightness and the dark.
The show uses subtitles to allow the Norwegian characters to speak in their native language, and to have some comic scenes of Frank/Giovani/Van Zandt trying to wrap his accent around a new vocabulary. But while I applaud a TV series that permits subtitles (most networks are petrified that subtitles are off-putting to viewers, as though we’re lazy and can’t read), the language aspect is peculiar in a different way: Most of the time, in the episodes I’ve watched, Frank has difficulty speaking the language, but he has little problem understanding the Norwegian spoken to him (which I would think highly unlikely, since he’s just arrived). I assume this was a decision the producers made to keep the already-relaxed tempo of the show moving along, but it is distracting.
As I said, this co-production with a Norwegian company is available on Netflix. The show was a big hit in Norway when it premiered there last month. Beyond questions of quality, though, it’ll be interesting to see whether people start watching TV from this source, with Netflix attempting to position itself as an online network as well as a place to rent and stream movies and TV shows.
Will you go to Netflix to watch a (roughly) hour-long comedy-drama, longer than most Web content? Is this a brave new world of TV dissemination, or a novelty you doubt will last? And, if you do watch, please tell me what you think of the quality of Lilyhammer.