Steven Van Zandt in Netflix’s jaw-dropper of a new series.
Imagine a television comedy about an American who moves to an exotic foreign country. He utterly refuses to assimilate, flouts the local laws, beats up people who offend him (including, in a scene that shocked even me, a Muslim who simply refused to shake a woman’s hand), acts in pretty much every way as the stereotypical Ugly American, and yet comes out as a sort of a hero?
And imagine that this series was produced, not by some jingoistic American company, but by people from that very foreign land?
And what if most of their countrymen loved it?
That’s the peculiar phenomenon we contemplate in Netflix’s maiden exclusive series, Lilyhammer, which set viewing records on Norwegian state television, and whose full first season of eight episodes is now available to subscribers.
The improbable premise is that Frankie Tagliano (Steven Van Zandt), a New York mobster, agrees to testify against his bosses on the condition that he be relocated to “Lilyhammer” Norway, a town that caught his fancy when he watched the 1994 Winter Olympics. Upon arrival in Lillehammer, he tries to bribe a government official to get a license to start a bar. Failing that, he just blackmails the man.
Frankie (now known as Giavonni “Johnny” Henriksen) applies the same direct-action strategy to all the challenges he encounters in his new country. When a sheep, owned by the son of a single mother “Johnny” has taken a liking to, is killed by a wolf, and all are informed in no uncertain terms by the lensman (constable) that wolves are a protected species, Johnny shames a couple male acquaintances into joining him in a nocturnal hunt. Much slapstick in the snow ensues, but eventually Johnny gets his wolf, with the revolver he had the foresight to smuggle in from America.
Van Zandt’s Johnny, walking the snowy rural streets in a city overcoat, slouched like a Nixon impersonator, blends in with the environment about as well as a hammer in a vase of lilies, and that’s much of what’s funny about this series. The humor tends to be as dark (and as broad) as Johnny himself, and the stories and the jokes are often predictable — except that, now and then, Sopranos-style violence breaks out. Eventually the mob learns where Johnny is, and two assassins are sent to take care of him. The season ends with one of those “wacky,” “Let’s use the local color” chase scenes so familiar from low-budget movies, in which we are expected to believe that an amusement park has been left open — but entirely empty of people — on the most important national holiday.
But it’s the meaning of it all that I can’t stop wondering about.
It would be a mistake to see Lilyhammer as a protest against Norwegian government and society. There’s a lot of discontent these days with the recently centralized Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration (NAV), generally seen as arrogant and impersonal, and that bureaucracy comes in for some fierce lampooning here. But American viewers should not understand that to mean that Norwegians (much as they love Lillyhammer, according to all the ratings) are unhappy with Social Democracy generally and eager for a more libertarian society. Willingness to laugh at one’s own culture, it should go without saying, is not a sign of insecurity. Of all the Europeans, Norwegians are probably the most content just now, having had the good sense (and good fortune) both to stay out of the European Union, and to be located on top of an ocean of crude oil.
Nevertheless, one has to wonder about the subtext. Wherever Johnny goes, he is dumbfounded by the naïve assumption every Norwegian seems to share, that all problems are simply caused by misunderstandings, and that if you’re nice enough to people, they’ll be nice as well. Johnny (who we must never forget is essentially a scumbag) is at least wiser than his neighbors in this — he knows that some problems transcend good manners.
There’s also the question of masculinity. Johnny is ugly and crude, but he’s unmistakably a man, and not the least ashamed of it. Wherever he goes in Norway he seems to encounter (with the exception of some bikers and criminals) emasculated males. One acquaintance, a stay at home father, confesses to him, weeping, that he went so far as to get a vasectomy, but his wife still keeps popping out babies (!). Johnny’s girlfriend’s son, clearly hungry for a male role model, adores Johnny, who confidently instructs him on how to deal with bullies (it involves a mitten full of rocks), and how to overcome his shyness with girls (“Think of them as food”). I suspect it’s not accidental that the lensman, the local police authority, in Lillehammer is a middle-aged woman.
It’s all farce, to be sure, in a cable comedy sort of way, but isn’t there a message here?
Lilyhammer is far from a masterpiece, and certainly does not rate as wholesome entertainment (lots of profanity, some nudity, and violence). But future generations, studying the program as a cultural artifact, will have to wonder, “Were they really trying to say what they seem to be saying?”