Lilyhammer: Imperfect Television at its Best

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Lilyhammer Season 3 Finale
Lilyhammer Season 3 Finale

I don’t review much. Mostly because I hate reading reviews.

Very seldom does something line up the same way for reviewers and critics and myself.

Life is frenetic, and as a journalist, I’m too often caught up in the spider web of pop culture and hard news, trying to dissect the edible morsels for the ravenous public.

So when I want to unwind with something entertaining, I want it to be ridiculous, far from either my own experience or the realities I have access to.

It was 2012, the snowiest year on record in Anchorage, Alaska. My wife was working nights at a local Applebees, and I was trying to come down from the highs of covering both the Iditarod, the 1,000-mile sled dog race and the Iron Dog, a 2,000-mile snow machine race.

It was weeks of grueling travel, hopping from one remote village to another as athletes, both four-legged and two, made their way across one of the most beautiful and harshest landscapes in the world.

It was March, and between getting out for long afternoon cross-country ski sessions on the coastal trails near our home in the growing daylight, I would sit at home alone at night looking for something other than Alaskan reality television shows to watch.

I’m not exactly sure how I stumbled upon Lilyhammer, only that I was flipping through Netflix one night and recognized Steven Van Zandt immediately from his signature look as Silvio Dante in the Sopranos.

I, like many others, assumed Lilyhammer to be a weird sequel to the Sopranos, so I tried it out in a severe drought of decent entertainment options one night.

I’m so glad that I did.

Lilyhammer is a misspelled reference to the way Steven Van Zandt as ex-mafioso turned informant Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano pronounces the Norwegian town as well as a toss to Frank’s dog Lily, who takes a bullet meant for Tagliano in the first episode.

After Frank provides testimony against newly ordained New York crime boss Aldo Delucci, he asks the U.S. Witness Protection Program to place him in the tiny Norwegian town of Lillehammer, largely forgotten since it took the world stage as the host of the 1994 Winter Olympics.

I love when television takes me away from the real world and into a different world where I can live in the margins as a fully bought-in observer.

Mostly today’s television fails to do so, because it’s either ripped from the headlines or striving for some kind of artistic poignancy in the newfound love affair with the antihero.

And I’m not against that, it’s just become the genre of our day.

Early in the first season, I would have said that Frank Tagliano, otherwise known as the immigrant Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen, is another in a line of antiheroes so favored by show runners these days.

But as the first and second seasons progress, you start to realize that he’s not devolving like so many, he’s evolving. He’s a flawed human being subjected to a brand-new culture and establishing a new life made half from his old life and half from his new surroundings.

Johnny, which the locals pronounce Yaw-nee in that wonderful Norwenglish that dominates the show, and which is contrasted by Johnny’s thick Jersey accent made famous by his Silvio in the Sopranos, comes off early as a cliche gangster.

But it contrasts so perfectly with the quaint Norwegian countryside and a very different culture than the one he or the viewer is used to.

That is unless you are the show’s intended viewer, which means you’re probably Norwegian and not American.

And this is where Lilyhammer really shines. It’s not a show with foreign elements made for the American market. It’s a British and Norwegian show made for the Norwegian market.

Just about the time you’re settling in to thinking that Frank, aka Johnny, is a ridiculous caricature of  American gangsters of Southern Italian descent, you have to flip the reality of who these characters both appeal to and make sense to.

The show goes right after the tense political issues in Norway, especially the immigration issue, as Johnny confronts barriers in what would be a traditional mob boss laying claim to new territory.

The show touches on the rising population of immigrants from Muslim countries in the first and second seasons, but it does so rather tenderly in my opinion, taking care not to make broad statements about people and their beliefs.

Through his mistakes, Johnny is forced to learn the culture, and as a result of his character, he develops a set of friendships that define the show.

My disadvantage is not being able to talk to a true Norwegian fan about the show. Because there is so much I want to know about the way the Norwegian audience sees this show and the characters in it.

The show deals with violence towards women and minorities, but many of these relationships are not as one-sided as they are in American shows. Abusive men receive their comeuppance in the end, though their actions are often deplorable during the show. It’s also remarkable when you think about the fact that these issues are not simply American issues at all but global issues of relevance.

It’s a male-based show. The female characters are interesting and becoming more so by the end of the third season, but the show reflects the realities of the crime world as a male-dominated society in both American and Norwegian cultures.

Whereas many of the female characters in famous American crime dramas came off as one dimensional due to bad writing, the female characters in Lilyhammer are multidimensional, even when their roles are confined to just a few episodes.

There is a lot of violence, sex and drugs portrayed in the series, though very little of it is glorified, and nudity is in line with other European shows I’ve seen. It’s probably not a good idea to have it on before the kids go to bed, in my opinion.

There is  a lot of comedy and hi-jinx, and  it’s refreshing to know that the blunders and foibles an American audience might expect are similar in a place like Norway.

But the surprises keep the show afloat. It’s easy to predict who will likely be killed off in each season, but it’s unlikely to see exactly how or why, and this type of writing is great, because it’s unreasonable.

I’ve kept this fairly spoiler free, so as to save you the joy of discovery.

But I have to include one spoiler here at the end of this post.

Bruce Springsteen as Guisepe "The Undertaker" Tagliano
Bruce Springsteen as Guisepe “The Undertaker” Tagliano

Bruce Springsteen has only ever had one acting credit. And it’s when he played himself in High Fidelity. But he plays the role of Giuseppe Tagliano in the last episode of the 3rd season of Lilyhammer, and he does so brilliantly. The Tagliano brothers are Tony Tagliano, (Tony Sirico) the priest who will prepare your soul for the afterlife.  Franky (Steven Van Zandt) “The Fixer” Tagliano, who if you don’t go along with him, will introduce you to Giuseppe (Bruce Springsteen) “The Undertaker” Tagliano.

The ending for season 3 is brilliant, and I applaud the Norwegian television makers for getting Bruce to do what American film makers have been trying for years to do.

There are many reasons to watch Lilyhammer, not the least of which is it’s just a very beautiful and cinematic show filmed in a location we Americans don’t see that often. It’s very northern climate in its focus, even though season 3 dips into Brazil here and there. It’s a non-American-centric show. It gives back where others shows take away. And it does so with blood clots instead of gimmicky return-from-the-dead scripts.

The brothers Torgeir and Roar Lien are the perfect consiglieri for their broad innocence and lack of fear, and they are responsible for changing Johnny far more than he is guilty of corrupting them, which is just another example of how refreshing it is to watch a show not geared toward American audiences.

Yes, it’s cheesy, yes its protagonist is a buffoon. But if you watch through season 3, you’ll soon realize that playing off the fascinating Norwegian culture lends a texture and brilliance to each episode that is difficult to find in American television.

Oh, I almost forgot. The show has a lot of subtitles, which makes you have to pay attention to understand what the Norwegian characters are saying. This has actually become one of my favorite aspects of the show, because I can’t do second-screen time while watching it. So it truly has become a great escape for me.

Here’s a teaser for Season 3

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