Friday, June 15, 2012

Television: Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt

It’s Friday, and time for a little pop culture.

Think Northern Exposure meets The Sopranos meets The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo. This is the first Netflix original television series -- bypassing networks and cable and going straight to streamed content -- and it is a fine one.

I was surfing around on Netflix on an evening when I was too worn out to read or to sit at a keyboard writing (though I had plenty of both to do.) Being someone who loves Norway, I saw the (misspelled) title for Lilyhammer, read the blurb, and decided to give the pilot a whirl. Less than 24 hours later I had watched the entire 8 episode first season and was thinking, “would you get on with filming that promised 2nd season, already?”

Lilyhammer stars Steven Van Zandt (who starred in The Sopranos after making his show-biz name as guitarist Little Steven of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band,) who also is co-executive producer for the series. Van Zandt plays a Mafioso, Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, who turns state’s evidence when the death of the previous family patriarch results in a power struggle that leaves him in a precarious position with the organization. When asked where he wants to go into witness protection, he suggests Lillehammer, Norway, since he had been taken by it’s pristine beauty when watching the 1994 Winter Olympics, and since he figured it would be the last place his former colleagues in the Mafia would come looking for him. And so, Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen is born, ostensibly a New Yorker of Italian-Norwegian lineage who decides to move to the ancestral homeland.

No matter how many times the “fish out of water” device is used in television or movies, it has the potential for working well (remember New Yorker Joel Fleischman and Alaska having to absorb each other in Northern Exposure?), and it certainly works here. Van Zandt was pitched the idea because of connections he had made in Norway as a musician and record producer. Other than Van Zandt, all of the actors and production staff are Norwegian, giving it a fresh (to us) feel. The show was broadcast on Norways’s national broadcasting channel, setting viewership records (a fifth of Norway’s population tuned in to the pilot.)

What keeps one watching is an engaging “what’s going to happen next” storyline that hits the right mix of comedy and drama, much as Northern Exposure did. While it is dealt with incidentally, Lilyhammer also manages to address, in the course of Johnny encountering life in modern-day Norway, issues simmering beneath the surface of Norwegian life like the softly tyrannical government bureaucracies of modern social democracies, the difficulties of absorbing third-world immigrants with little interest in acculturation into previously homogeneous societies like Norway, and the generally weak-kneed social squishiness of modern societies that have a naive confidence in what gentle dialogue and reasoning can accomplish.

It is pretty clear that the Norwegian producers and writers had a blast with this show. They are able to express the frustrations of modern Norwegian life through the comedic device of putting a New York Italian mobster into the middle of their society and portraying how it all looks from the outside. Whether it is a Norwegian driver’s license bureau that make American DMV’s look like models of customer satisfaction, a school system that insists on attempting to reason with school bullies no matter how many violent infractions they rack up, or a neighborhood watch program that is utterly useless because it attempts to dialogue with vandals while they stand and watch them vandalize property, one is reminded that for all of our complaints about the softness of modern American life, things can get much, much worse as we go down the path to a European-style social democracy with its attendant tics and obsessions.

The Norwegian producers can get by with all of this because it can all be blamed on an American -- they aren’t portraying a rebellious Norwegian attempting to cut through red tape and stifling social conventions.

The show portrays the subtle, passive-aggressive nature that highly bureaucratized societies can develop -- all under a smiling mask of gentleness and tolerance. We see the tired and bored looks on the faces of “the usual suspects” on the dole who are attending a state-run “motivational seminar,” the hospital that just happens to move a woman to a hospital many miles away when a minor conflict arises, and the employment agency guy sticking Johnny in a 6 month course for “hard cases” when he fails to show proper humility. And we see, most of all, that odd combination of inflexibility and self-loathing that seems to be part of modern life in the West.

One entertaining scene involves the son of Johnny’s new Norwegian girlfriend. He is giving a speech for “National Day” (Norwegian Independence Day.) Johnny is appalled that there is no pride about Norway in the speech and that it is filled with the multicultural cliches that have apparently become the norm on “National Day." Johnny rewrites the speech to make it express Norwegian national pride, throws in some comments about immigrants needing to adapt to Norwegian culture, and includes a shout-out to the U.S., without whom Norwegians "would all be speaking German today.” Needless to say, a speech on Norwegian National Day that praises Norway (with an American-style “God Bless Norway!” thrown in for good measure at the end) causes the audience’s jaws to drop. One just doesn’t say such outrageous things.

But again, all of this is incidental. The real story lines revolve around Johnny using his unique skill set to get what he wants (he owned a nightclub in New York, and wants to run one in Lillehammer,) inevitably coming into contact with what passes for a Norwegian underworld, and around his relationship with his new girlfriend Sigrid and the other Norwegians who befriend him (and whom he befriends in ways they are completely unused to.) Since Van Zandt can’t speak Norwegian, the producers use the clever technique of having Johnny learning to understand Norwegian perfectly well, yet himself only speaking English. (The same technique was used in the Ocean’s 11 movies, where all of the characters can inexplicably understand Yen’s Mandarin, and he can understand their English, and yet everyone just speaks their own languages.) The Norwegian spoken by the other actors is subtitled, and somehow it all just works.

This is Norwegian television, so expect some frontal nudity (OK in Norway) but violence that is very tame by American television standards (not so OK in peace-loving Norway.) And it is a New York gangster, so adjust your ears accordingly for the language.

It’s not high art, but it is good pop art. Van Zandt noted in an interview that it was a very low-budget affair, not at all resembling working on an HBO production like The Sopranos, and yet the end result is the equal of shows produced by cable channels like AMC or A&E. It is also nice to see someone taking the bold step of taking good original material straight to streamed internet content. One hopes that Lilyhammer becomes a model for other television collaborations with production companies in other countries. Such shows will have a niche market, and with the increased availability of high-quality streaming video, those niches can be filled at minimal cost, going straight to the consumer and bypassing the cable middle man.

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