Review Of Lilyhammer

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/10/12


  Northern Exposure meets The Sopranos!

  This sentence was uttered at some time during the pitch for Netflix’s first foray into original television programming, and the result is a pretty good first season of a Mafia comedy (not dramady) called Lilyhammer. The premise is that a New York City Mob Underboss finds himself aced out of a top slot by a rival, and takes it on the lam to the Feds, after his rival tries and fails to whack him. In return for testifying, Frank ‘The Fixer’ Tagliano (Steven Van Zandt- of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band infamy and The Sopranos) requests that his Federal Witness Protection people relocate him to Lillehammer, Norway because he loved the 1994 Winter Olympics, and he feels no one will ever look for him there.

  Enter Giovanni ‘Johnny’ Henrikson, Frank’s silly alter-ego- a ‘businessman’ with an Italian mother and Norwegian father, who was raised in New York. He’s an immigrant to his ‘homeland,’ looking to reconnect with his ‘roots,’ but ends up, via blackmail and fortuity, only afforded in fiction, co-owning a bar he renames The Flamingo, which soon becomes his new hometown’s hottest nightspot. Throughout the series’ first season’s eight episodes, we get to know the quirky residents of the town: Torgeir Lien (Trond Fausa Aurvåg), a moron who becomes Johnny’s best friend and flunky; Torgeir’s even dumber brother Roar (Steinar Sagen)- a cabby; Johnny’s girlfriend, the teacher Sigrid Haugli (Marian Saastad Ottesen)- whom he impregnates with twins; Sigrid’s young son, Jonas (Mikael Aksnes-Pehrson); unemployment office worker Jan Johansen (Fridtjov Såheim)- whom Johnny blackmails with photos of sexual encounters with unemployed foreign women he exploits; Julius Backe (Sven Nordin)- whom Johnny blackmails after a real estate deal goes sour; and the two local cops- police chief Laila Hovland (Anne Krigsvoll) and her assistant, an Elvis Presley fan, Geir Tvedt (Kyrre Hellum).

  The show follows Johnny’s relationships with these characters, his growing influence with them, and assorted episodes deal with his détente with a local group of biker thugs, who supply him with stolen booze, as well as Geir’s obsession with Johnny as a supposed terrorist. This leads to several incidents that get Geir suspended. He is, on suspension, sent to Graceland, but stops in New York City to dig up dirt on Johnny. This is when Frank’s old rivals get an inkling that he may be in Norway. Two street level thugs, Bobby Grasso (Tim Ahern) and Jerry DeLucci (Greg Canestrari), end up beating Geir to death, then are sent to Norway to seek out Frank for retribution, as the don he ratted out skated from the charges against him. For the last few episodes we see a cat and mouse game of them hunting Johnny and he and his cohorts hunting them. Finally, in the last episode of the season, the duo kidnap Jonas, on Norwegian National Day, and plan to exchange the kid for Frank. Jerry, however, is a severe gay hater, and bashes a queer who flashes him, allowing Jonas to escape to an amusement park. Jerry’s triggerhappiness leads Frank to them. Jonas escapes and takes off with Torgeir, who believes Johnny is an ex-CIA agent. Torgeir returns Jonas to his frantic mother. Frank then takes on Jerry, who is alone, after stupidly assaulting and knocking out Bobby for an offhand comment he mistakes as a homosexual remark. Frank and Jerry duke it out, but Jerry gets the drop on Frank and is about to kill him when he is killed by Bobby, who says he always liked Frank and didn’t like Jerry. They hatch a scheme, for Bobby to return to America saying that Jerry and Frank killed each other, and he brought back Frank’s beloved father’s ring as proof Frank is dead. They bury Jerry, but Laila arrives to see them finishing off the fresh grave. Frank tells her that Jerry was the one who killed Geir and that this is justice. Laila decides to turn a blind eye. Meanwhile, Sigrid turns her back on Johnny, for the lies and violence he brings. The last episode ends with Jan Johansen getting fired when his boss finds his sex photos, then begging Johnny for a job. Johnny relents, and the season ends with a nice set up for a second season.

  The acting is all first rate, and while there are minor dramatic elements, the fact that all the Norwegian characters are played and written as boobs means this show is a comedy, not a dramady. The writing on the show is surprisingly good, and Van Zandt, Anne Bjørnstad (also the show’s creator), and Eilif Skodvin deserve the credit. Yes, there are stereotypes- of both American gangsters and Nordic cultures, but, as a comedy, it mixes these in unique and genuinely humorous ways. It’s not belly laugh funny, but it makes you often smirk when you feel you should not- say, at a moment of would be pathos for the characters. The only annoying thing is the use of borderless white subtitles when the Norwegians speak their native tongue. Come on, are you telling me borders, or gold font, was THAT much more expensive? The acting is also far above most American television comedies or dramas. Van Zandt is the real surprise, as, despite a limited range, he conveys much emotion, and the comedy format seems perfectly suited to exploit the limited range of an emotionally and ethically stunted individual as Frank Tagliano. The other standouts are Trond Fausa Aurvåg, as boobish henchman Torgeir, who gets involved in numerous humorous subplots, including sex with a friend’s mother, violence with the bikers, and an art deal that goes bad; Sven Nordin, as lawyer Backe- who actually shows an immense range facially, and, were I a European film director, should immediately be signed to star in modern day Bergman-like dramas; and Kyrre Hellum, whose character Geir Tvedt, dies midway through the season. When he is onscreen he just commands the moment. Hopefully, he can somehow come back in another role in Season Two.
  The show was a hit, earlier this year, when over 20% of Norway’s population tuned in for the series, and, shortly thereafter, all eight episodes were released on Netflix. While there is some creakiness in the pilot episode, by the second the show really starts humming. Is it a great show, one destined for television immortality? No, that’s not likely, but it is a historic first- the first streaming first release in Netflix history, and as such it’s an impressive start to something that, hopefully, will augur well for the future of quality entertainment and, dare I?, art from the boob tube. If that’s not an endorsement enough, well, I have a few friends who’d like to have a-


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]


Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share