By Caryn James | James on Screens February 6, 2012 at 9:00AM
As Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, a mob guy who has crossed too many people, Steven Van Zandt looks and sounds exactly like Silvio Dante, his character from The Sopranos, right down to the giant pompadour and petulant lower lip. The similarity is intentional and for a short time a problem. There’s a reason secondary characters are secondary. Much as we love him, do we really want a whole series about Sil? But as soon as Lilyhammer makes its offbeat swerve, this new series really takes off. Frank rats out his boss and asks to be relocated to Lillehammer because he remembers it from the ’94 Olympics as the land of beautiful snow and beautiful women. Suddenly he’s Giovanni (“Call me Johnny”) Hendriksen, importing his tough-guy ethos to Norway, and Van Zandt convinces us we do want to see what happens to Silvio in the gentle land of snow. It’s not always so different from hunting down a victim in the Pine Barrens, but this victim is a wolf. Not a metaphorical wolf, an actual animal.
Lilyhammer happens to be the first original series to premiere by streaming on Netflix, which co-produced it with a Norwegian company. (All eight episodes are available starting today.) But the series is more than a gimmick. It is a modest, quirky, enjoyable show that balances Johnny’s thuggish actions with humor, and never takes itself too seriously.
Johnny has definitely taken his mob mentality witih him. In the first episode he meets the recurring characters in his new neighborhood. He blackmails one of them, buys a bar, finds a love interest in a pretty blonde teacher, and meets the police chief – an eagle-eyed, no-nonsense woman who has somehow dropped the sheep’s head she was planning to cook for dinner on the street outside Johnny’s house. It’s as if he has landed in Fargo. And even though he tries to learn Norwegian, he only speaks English; he’s a fish on snowshoes, and the oddball combination works.
Lilyhammer was a hit in Norway and Netflix has already signed on to co-produce a second season. It isn’t the most inventive series you’ll ever see, but it’s fresher than most network shows, and Van Zandt wears very well. Netflix has more originals ahead, including the much more ambitious David Fincher-Kevin Spacey series House of Cards. As a first step, Lilyhammer is a bright surprise.