We’re hesitant to review a TV show that’s still running, as a positive review from this site has been the kiss of death before. Still, we’re not Judas on a mission… more like Hardy expressing his great regard for the dying Admiral. So we will send a kiss the way of Lilyhammer, the consequences be damned.
Lilyhammer is a Netflix production for which two seasons are available online; the first is also available on DVD in the USA. It stars musician and actor Steven Van Zandt as “Frankie the Fixer,” a New York mobster placed in the Witness Protection Program, and, at his own request, in the city he calls “Lilyhammer,” which he took a shine to while watching the Winter Olympics in 1994: Lillehammer, Norway. The constant theme of the show is old-school conservative mobster Frankie, in his new identity as half-Norwegian, half-Sicilian-American Giovanni “Johnny” Hendricksen, clashing with the liberal, touchy-feely culture of modern Norway.
For anyone, it should be fun. For an old Norway hand like all us 11th Group remnants (the group was disbanded 20 years ago last month, which we were remiss in not mentioning. The human sacrifice was part of a Clinton-era jihad against SOF, tucked inside that perennial Washington sacramental rite, defense budget cuts), well, for us it’s must-see TV. It’s the biggest hit ever in Norway, where it’s produced; Van Zandt shares writing duties with Norwegian creatives, and the beautiful winter scenery of Lillehammer and environs is practically a character in the show.
If you’re a mobster trying to scare people, a nearby Olympic city with all the winter-sports installations has its charms. Being taken for a ride is bad enough, but “a ride” on the luge track is a whole new level of intimidation.
In Norway, things are a little different across the board, but enough like the USA that a visit to Norway — especially an extended visit, or a period as an expatriate — trips Yanks into a cognitive Uncanny Valley. Scandinavia had a huge impact on the USA, on the structure of towns across the country, on accents and culture in a region. The fabled upper-midwest civic engagement we know today as “Wisconsin (or Minnesota) nice” has its roots in Scandinavia (many of the emigrants from Sweden and Norway alike carried Swedish passports, as the two nations did not separate until 1905. Naturally, they did it bloodlessly and amicably — very Scandinavian). In any event, the producers of the show are keenly aware of this Uncanny Valley effect and they manage to inflict it both on the characters (for the USA is as foreign-but-familiar to the Norwegian characters as Lillehammer is to Americans) and the audience.
As Johnny applies Mob Way techniques to solve Norwegian problems (waitlisted at kindergarten!), trouble in the form of brutal British mobsters, his old compatriots from La Cosa Nostra, or incorruptible cops, continues to find him.
Acting and Production
Van Zandt took a risk in this show of being typecast as a mobster, after his star turn as Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s right-hand consigliere. Another Soprano alumnus, Tony Sirico, shows up in Season 2, playing Frankie/Johnny’s brother the priest. But the real strength of the show is in its Norwegian cast, playing characters who range from a homey police chief turned crime novelist, to two hard-of-thinking brothers, to a dirty old welfare bureaucrat.
The producers and directors have a lot of fun with the show, and no doubt we miss some of the snarky little quotes they insert from classic films. In Season 2, for example, we’ve seen The Godfather crop up, and a hilarious homage to Saving Private Ryan. These scenes aren’t wedged it — they advance the plot, but they’re also the crew’s way of having a little fun, and inviting the audience into an in-joke with them.
Since much of the dialogue is in Nynorsk, you’re going to need the subtitles.
Accuracy and Weapons
The film is art, not current events, and weapons are a sideline to the characters and story. There are only a few howlers. (For example, in one Season 2 episode, “Johnny” is teaching his infants to shoot a revolver… when a Norwegian friend appears shocked, he says not to worry, the safety’s on. Er, yeah. What’s next, a suppressed Model 29?
British and American criminals are shown having no qualms about violating Norwegian gun laws. At one point early in the first season, Johnny shows how he has smuggled a revolver into the country. (Pro tip: that will not work in real life. You will wind up in Norwegian prison, which, on the upside, is not all that bad).
The bottom line
Lillehammer is good TV — maybe great TV. Van Zandt would be entertaining doing almost anything on screen, but he’s ably supported by a brilliant cast of mostly Norwegian players. Wry fun is poked at both the ignorance of a typically insular American — at one point, Johnny describes a lefty Norwegian character as “redder than a baboon’s ass,” and on learning he studied in Prague, says it’s no wonder he got that way, hanging out in Russia with the commies. (What he says on being informed that Prague is not in Russia is even funnier). But there are also plentiful jokes made at the expense of Norwegian immigration do-gooders and integration-resistant immigrants, hard-of-thinking criminals, and bumbling cops.
For an interview with Van Zandt about the show, see this link at Rolling Stone. They’re hopeless when they write about national security or international affairs these days, but pop culture for the boomer generation is their sweet spot.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page:
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page: ikke (none).
- Rotten Tomatoes review page: none.
- Wikipedia page: