TV series: Lilyhammer (Netflix)
Originally aired: 2012-2014
When Lilyhammer first came out on Netflix we were new to the whole streaming game. I was interested in it because it’s set in Norway, which is almost home, and I figured Mr T might be interested in the gangster aspect (I definitely wasn’t at the time), and we both like black comedies. In the end I think we possibly only ended up watching the first episode or something, because he wasn’t that interested, and neither was I.
Roll on a decade, and there’s news saying Lilyhammer was supposed to be taken off Netflix because they were pulling the rights, or whatever. That meant it was high time to watch it, because hey, it actually stars Silvio Dante from The Sopranos!!
What’s Lilyhammer about? A former New York City Mafia underboss, Frank Tagliano (Steven Van Zandt), testifies against his new crime family boss and is placed in witness protection as a result of this. He has the idea of going to Norway, because no one would ever look for him there. Especially not in the small town of Lillehammer, which he saw on TV and become fascinated with when they hosted the Winter Olympics in 1994. They put him on a plane to Norway and he’s told to keep his head down.
On the train from Oslo to his new home Frank meets a woman, Sigrid Haugli (Marian Saastad Ottesen), a teacher in Lillehammer. They hit it off. Life as Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen, an American immigrant with Norwegian roots, isn’t plain sailing, though. He has to attend classes for learning Norwegian and on how to get into work, all hosted by creepy civil servant Jan Johansen (Fridtjov Såheim). Fellow jobseeker Torgeir Lien (Trond Fausa Aurvåg) quickly becomes Johnny’s second in command, and along with his brother Roar (Steinar Sagen) they form the basis of the burgeoning criminal empire.
You have this suave, charismatic Italian-American gangster who quickly falls back into doing what he does best: bribery, blackmail, threats, and so on. Every classic gangster trope under the sun, basically, but he’s doing this in a setting where the Mafia doesn’t feel like a real thing, it’s just something that exists in gangster films. The Lien brothers are essentially a couple of bumbling rednecks from Hicksville, but when you’re trying to build a criminal empire from scratch, you use whatever tools are available. And the contrast of Cosa Nostra’s finest wreaking havoc in Norway is oftentimes darkly hilarious.
When I wrote about Tulsa King, I mentioned parallels you could draw to Lilyhammer, and also mentioned that while Tulsa King started out kind of lighthearted with serious undertones, it quickly got more serious than laugh-out-loud funny. Lilyhammer is occasionally serious too, sometimes even very serious, but you never forget the fact that it first and foremost is a comedy. Of course you get the expected culture clashes between Americans and Norwegians in general, but also the culture clashes between career criminals and the criminally naive. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, and while the Norwegians poke a lot of fun at themselves, it’s also done lovingly. Johnny is there because he genuinely loves the place and makes it his new home, so it’s never a caricature.
At one point they go to New York City, where we meet Frank’s ex Ange, played by the real Mrs Van Zandt, and Frank’s priest brother, played by fellow Sopranos actor Tony Sirico. Season 3 also features an episode where Bruce Springsteen plays the third Tagliano brother, an undertaker and former hitman. Steven Van Zandt is part of the E Street Band, Springsteen’s main backing band since the early 1970s, so the latter isn’t as surprising as it first appears.
Question you might ask is whether Frank/Johnny is basically the same character as Silvio Dante, and I think the answer to that is a resounding no, and not just because I can’t see Silvio Dante getting into reindeer racing.
The biggest complaint I could ever have about this show is that it only got three seasons. Then again, it never really had a chance to outstay its welcome and feel old hat either, which I guess is a plus. If it’s still on Netflix, or if you haven’t watched it and find it somewhere else, I highly recommend it. Provided you like gangster films/shows, don’t mind the Norwegian being subtitled, and you like your comedy as dark as the deepest halls of the Mountain King.