February 06, 2012 3:25pm PT by Tim Goodman
Review: 'Lilyhammer' Is Light But Worth A Look
Give Netflix credit for not saying Lilyhammer, its first original-content drama streaming all eight episodes starting today, will be a revolution for the industry or even the future of the company.
Instead, Lilyhammer is an odd little series with potential. It stars Steven Van Zandt, the E Street guitarist and former bit player on The Sopranos. Here he plays Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, a New York mobster (surprise!) who does what his Silvio Dante character on The Sopranos would never do – flip on the mob (with a not very convincing reason) and ends up in the witness protection program. Where does he want to go? Lillehammer, Norway. He loved watching the Winter Olympics there in 1994 and believes nobody will find him there. His name will now be Giovanni Henrikson. Call him Johnny, he tells people.
Sometimes you just have to go with a premise, people. This series is a Norwegian production that Netflix invested in, so Norway it is – even though Silvio, er, Frank, looks far more likely to head somewhere warm and with lots of nearby Italian food. (By the way, Netflix is also the company bringing back Arrested Development for one season prior to the movie and outbid other suitors for the David Fincher-Kevin Spacey drama House of Cards, so the service is serious about expanding its model).
Lilyhammer might be a nice little welcome mat for television enthusiasts to get into streaming if they haven't already (or to try Netflix, if they haven't already). That is, provided they can get past the obvious roadblock – that Van Zandt is essentially recycling his Sopranos character. It's all you can think aobut while watching him. He’s got all the Silvio mannerisms but, to his credit, takes a lot (but not all) of the grease out of his hair and ultimately plays Frank/Giovanni as a more charming guy who appears to just be tired of his old life and ambitious enough to start a new one in the last place on earth anyone would guess.
The side benefit to this, of course, is that the predictable fish-out-of-water angle is far more endurable when it is applied to a series shot on location that looks beautiful and mysterious every time you look at it. Van Zandt also has a good knack for finding the playful element in the Lilyhammer premise, which will no doubt remind many viewers of Northern Exposure – at least a tiny bit. And that’s not a bad thing.
No slight to Van Zandt, but expectations were low for Lilyhammer just because of all the mob guys on The Sopranos, he’s probably one of the last you’d consider to bust out and play a lead character. Although his Sopranos character became endearing on a number of levels, it often felt more stereotypical than authentic. But maybe Silvio/Frank in the cold confines of Norway – where he sticks out immediately – has potential. The pilot, in fact, ends up being far more enjoyable than one might imagine given these reasons for pause.
There are a couple of other issues that Lilyhammer has going against it, however. There are subtitles, which might put off some people (though they shouldn’t). More troubling is the notion that in the first hour viewers will no doubt be mystified by Frank/Giovanni’s inability to speak Norwegian but for the most part understand it when he hears it spoken. Then again, sometimes he doesn’t understand it. He’s listening to a lot of language books on tape, but it’s coming very slowly. And then – viola! – he understands when someone talks to him. Still more confusing, once the Norwegians realize he can understand them, you’d think they’d never speak English to him again, but they do. Most of the time.
Despite the perplexing language mish-mash, the Lilyhammer pilot was so different than anything else on television right now that you might want to stream the final seven episodes to see what happens. On the other hand, Netflix must surely know that you’ve got a lot of choices out there and probably more shows you already like stacking up in your DVR, waiting to be watched.
If the rental/streaming service is ever going to become a serious threat to networks or cable channels, it will not only need a lot more offerings, but a lot better ones as well.