Lilyhammer

The first season of Lilyhammer is now available for streaming on Netflix.

Of all the original regular cast members on The Sopranos, nobody's act got thinner, faster, than Steve Van Zandt's. In the show's early days, Van Zandt's bantamweight intensity, antsy mannerisms, and baleful glower made for a strong contrast to James Gandolfini's solid, watchful authority. But by the time The Sopranos pulled into the station for the 86th and final time, I'd begun to shudder a little every time he lurched onscreen, preceded, like a medieval herald, by his lower lip. It didn't help that, as The Sopranos went on, the show seemed to fall more and more in love with its hero, so that, as if to make it absolutely clear that it was unthinkable that anyone else could be fit to run organized crime in New Jersey, both Van Zandt's and Tony Siroco's characters seemed to get more craven and dopey with each passing season. He also seemed to become more hunched over with every episode, to the point that, well before the end, he looked as if he ought to be up in a bell tower, pining for Esmeralda. It was as if he were physically weighed down by the stress of having to put his toupee on once again and try to remember to answer when someone addressed him as “Silvio.”

So it's kind of a surprising that Van Zandt, who had no acting experience prior to The Sopranos and hasn't had any kind of acting career aside from it, has signed on for a new series. Lilyhammer was created by Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin; they share the writing credits with Van Zandt, who also takes an executive producer credit. Van Zandt doesn't stretch himself as an actor here, but that isn't what's wanted of him. He's here for the associations he carries onto the set with him. The show might almost be a fantasy of what happened to Silvio after Tony was whacked, if Silvio had remained as smart and resourceful as he seemed likely to be back during The Sopranos' first season. 

He plays a New York mobster named Frankie “The Fixer” Tagliano who, after the death of the big boss, is passed over in the line of succession in favor of the dead man's brother Aldo, a “bean counter” who, Frankie tells him in the ultimate insult, should be working on Wall Street. The new boss tries to have Frankie killed, and Frankie, his bond of loyalty snapped, agrees to serve Aldo up to the Feds in exchange for being witness relocated to the location of his dreams. When one of the Feds asks if he had visions of Miami dancing in his head, Frankie replies, “Melanoma's for the old school wise guys.  I'm thinking Lillehammer.” It turns out that he fell in love with the place while watching the 1994 winter Olympics on TV: "“Clean air, fresh white snow, gorgeous broads, and best of all, nobody, but nobody, is going to be looking for me there.”

Lilyhammer's eight-episode first season is now available for streaming exclusively on Netflix, which is billing it as “a Netflix original.” That term could use a little clarifying. Netflix didn't create the show, which ran on Norwegian television earlier this year. (It was a huge hit--that is, relative to the population of Norway.) But it's the first series to make its American "debut" as an exclusive online Netflix option. Netflix is promising more exclusive streaming content to come, notably David Fincher's remake of the BBC series House Of Cards with Kevin Spacey and new episodes of Arrested Development. There are already series that Americans have to go online to watch, notably the A.V. Club favorite Misfits, but it's still a big, risky move, albeit probably a necessary one for a company that has made it clear that it's much more eager to get out of the DVD rental business than its customers are to stop giving it their money for the privilege of renting DVDs from them. If Lilyhammer and some of the other shows that Netflix is promising can bring in the customers, then Netflix can finally move on to the plan they seem to have been building up to since last year: threatening anyone who tries to rent a DVD from them with physical violence. 

The good news, at least for Netflix stockholders, is that nobody's going to be humiliated by being associated with Lilyhammer. The show looks good and professional and slick, and it plays; it's perfectly watchable, with a pleasant overlay of processed quirk. But I can't see many people signing up for Netflix just for the chance to watch it, in the way that people started signing up for HBO because they'd heard that they needed to watch The Sopranos if they wanted to know what was going on in the culture, (At least, they did in that brief window before people started waiting to gorge on whole seasons of shows by the DVD brick load.) It's basically just another medium-dark comedy about a strangely lovable gangster, and just another fish out of water comedy. It takes these two thoroughly played-out genres and mixes them together, resulting in returns that diminish that much faster.

Frankie, rechristened “Giovanni Henriksen” and called “Johnny” be everyone he meets, moves into his new digs and immediately starts a successful new bar, acquires a loyal man friday in Torger (Trond Fausa Aurvag), and romances a pretty blonde teacher (Sigrid Haugli) with a 12-year-old son. He also arouses the suspicions of the local Marge Gunderson (Anne Krigsvoll) and her second-in-command, Geir (Kyrre Hellum), an eager beaver police officer and moonlighting rock singer who has his cultural stereotypes so badly confused that he takes one look at the pushy, tough-talking Italian-American Frankie and deduces that he must be a terrorist working with al-Qaeda. 

Trond Fausa Aurvag is very winning, in a way that only an endearingly gawky guy who acts as if he's waited all his life to be ordered around by a weirdo who's three times his age and half his height can be, but a lot of what goes on between these characters can only rate a “huh?” I'm sure there are plausible reasons why a barely employed single mother living in a picturesque snowscape would want to hook up with a 60-year-old stranger who must leave pitch-black dye stains all over the bath towels, but still, the teacher takes Frankie into her bed with what what my grandmother would have called unseemly haste, and he, in turn, doesn't waste any time getting her pregnant. The teacher's personality never does emerge; she's just there to give Frank someone to sleep with and lie to and to give him an excuse to get into brawls while shopping for a baby carriage. For that matter, Frankie never says or does anything to suggest that his having fallen in love with Lillehammer while watching the Olympics, which is a rather charming conceit, goes any deeper than a throwaway joke. Lilyhammer has a fairly intricate plot, but if the writers had worked just as hard on fleshing out the characters and building believable relationships between them while letting the story grow a little slack, there'd be more reason to watch it.

The central joke is that Frank the urban outlaw brings something to the placid, polite Norwegians that's been missing from their lives. He metes out violent justice swiftly and without thinking too hard about it, with a moral compass that is pure because it's untainted by reflection or doubt. (Remember when that was supposed to be what made George W. Bush a great President?) On the train taking him to Lillehammer for the first time, he slaps around a punk who stole a nice older man's hat and (horrors!) is playing his music too loudly. Soon he's protecting the community by rubbing out wolves (in spite of local ordinances protecting them from "illegal hunting") and bashing local vandals. The people who get it appreciate it, the ones who have sticks up their butts think he's a vulgar thug. But by the end of the first season, the bureaucrat who tried to give him a hard time (threatening, horrors! horrors!, to call a cop when offered a bribe) when he first arrived in town is begging him for a job, and the police chief is turning a blind eye to a murder he's had a hand in.  The show doesn't exactly advocate vigilante justice, it just thinks that, in the right hands, when used against the right people, it can be  awful cute.

Thanks to Van Zandt's presence, Lilyhammer is an eight-episode Sopranos reference, and like The Sopranos, it constantly references The Godfather. (In the first episode, when Frankie finds a sheep's head lying in the road where the police chief dropped it, he says, “For a minute there, I thought I was going to have to give Johnny Fontaine a movie part.”)  By the very end, though, Frankie has been established as such a sweetheart that it suddenly starts piling up references to Casablanca. But the movie it really reminded me of was the 1990 Steve Martin comedy, in which Martin plays a gangster in the witness relocation program who, by refusing to give up his old ways, charms everybody, brings happiness to his suburban community, and helps the tight-ass agent watching over him to find love. (For the record, this is the first time that anyone has been reminded of My Blue Heaven, for any reason, since George Bush, Sr. was president.) That movie was written by Nora Ephron, who's married to Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the nonfiction book Wiseguy, which was turned into the Martin Scorsese movie GoodFellas, which Pileggi wrote. I can't imagine why people who work in the entertainment industry are so drawn to stories about people who've been in organized crime, since it's an incestuously interconnected little world made up of hustlers who pull rip-offs for a living.

Stray observations:

  • If there's anything memorably weird about this show, it comes from the writers' efforts to make Frankie seem like an open-minded fairly enlightened guy while at the same time establishing that he's too cool for any of that “politically correct” jive. So when he confronts a Muslim about the man's disrespectful behavior towards women, the scene begins with him addressing the guy as “Towelhead.” I guess you could make an argument for that being a joke about the limits of Frankie's tolerance. But how about the speech he delivers to his girlfriend's son: “Women are food. They are a reward for a man's hard day's labor, like a good meal. Why do you think we call them 'honey, 'sugar'. 'sweetie', 'cupcake'... With those luscious lips, beautiful tits, round, smooth, creamy asses. delicious pussies, all waited to be tasted, licked, sucked, savored like a fine wine.” Yeah, sure, ha ha. All I know is that if Tony Soprano caught somebody talking like that to a 12-year-old,  the guy would be wearing his ass for a hat.

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