2012 to Present – New York gangster Frank Tagliano (Steven Van Zandt) enters the witness protection program and tries to start a new life in Lillehammer, Norway, as Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen. Adorable fish-out-of-water gags and good-natured mob violence ensue.
E-Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt played strutting, sneering gangster Silvio Dante on the greatest TV drama of all time, The Sopranos.
He now plays swaggering, smirking gangster Frank Tagliano / “Giovanni Henriksen” on the Netflix original series Lilyhammer.
Yes, Mr. Van Zandt is obviously an actor of outstanding range and subtlety. For that devoted group of Silvio fans who always wanted to see their favorite consigliere in a goofier, more subtitle-heavy environment, Lilyhammer will not disappoint. There are currently three seasons of the show available on Netflix; I’ve watched the first two, and I don’t think I have much interest in seeing the third.
Season 1 sets up the general premise: after arriving in Norway, Frank is unable to resist falling back into his old racketeering habits. He recruits bumbling brothers Torgeir (Trond Fausa Aurvag) and Roar (Steinar Sagen) to be his primary henchmen and comic relief, meets love interest Sigrid (Marian Saastad Ottesen), and quickly runs afoul of police chief Laila Hovland (Anne Krigsvoll). Eventually he has to come to terms with his past when a few of his old mob colleagues track him down.
These eight episodes are great fun, building up Frank as an anti-hero who’s much easier to root for than, say, Tony Soprano or Walter White. Even more entertaining than watching him slowly establish his petty criminal empire is seeing him clash with naively liberal Scandinavian society. Although the show is Norwegian-produced, there’s something heart-warmingly American about it all. Frank tackles the political correctness and endless bureaucratic red tape as only an uncultured American could – with threats, bribery, and extortion. The attempts of the good-hearted Norwegians to “integrate” him invariably end in comedic disaster. You could base a decent drinking game solely on the number of times he groans, “Oh, what the fuck is this?”
Unfortunately, these themes start to run out of gas in Season 2. The going gets tougher – Frank faces ruthless British gangsters, dangerous art thieves, and still more New York associates – and his ability to get out of any difficulty begins to strain credibility. To me, he started to seem too wise, too prepared for every contingency, too able to convince the dopey Norwegians to go along with his schemes.
No matter how clever or brutal his antagonists are, Frank is always able to defeat them and everything returns to normal. This saps the series of its tension: there are occasional tragedies, but we know that things will always turn out just fine for our protagonists. In order to establish him as the hero of the series, they make Frank too much of a nice guy. I never get the impression that this man could have been a vicious New York mobster. Sure, he roughs people up – but they either deserve their comeuppance or become his buddies immediately afterward.
My advice: give the first season a chance. There are good laughs, drama, and plenty of that delightful Norwegian language that seems to bubble off the roof of the mouth. The story comes to a satisfying conclusion, all the loose ends are tied up, and there’s really no need to tune in for further adventures.