Lilyhammer’s third season arrived on Netflix last November, bolder, bloodier and sillier than ever. The most recent batch of episodes, boasting a budget bigger than Norway’s GDP, catapulted viewers from the cold climes of Scandinavia to the tropical slums of Rio de Janeiro and back again, with a few stop-offs in New York along the way. There was murder, intrigue, Islamic terrorism, a dying whale, a mafia cookbook, drug-running, a big-budget Brazilian telenovela, reindeer racing and of course the requisite explosions, gun fights and fist fights that are now a permanent staple of life in the quiet and quaint little town of Lillehammer. There was also a finale that featured one of the more bizarre cliff-hangers in modern television history: a bludgeoned breast-crazed maniac lying dead in a bath full of human milk.
Unfortunately, season three’s finale may well be the last we’ll ever see of Frank ‘The Fixer’ Tagliano and his snow-bound mafia hijinks. Declining ratings, a lukewarm critical reception and a conflict between Netflix and Norway’s state broadcaster NRK have all conspired to place a question mark over Lilyhammer’s future. The latter factor here is perhaps the most critical. NRK – the station that co-created the show and broadcasts it on terrestrial television in Norway – upset Netflix when it made every single episode of the show’s third season available online, all at once, before the season had finished airing on TV, and, crucially, before Netflix Norway had released the episodes on its own service. Netflix funds most of the show’s production costs, and so felt understandably short-changed by NRK, and angry that a mockery had been made of the pre-agreed distribution deal. As a consequence, the streaming giant has been stubbornly silent on the subject of forking out filthy lucre for a fourth season of Lilyhammer. At the time of writing, it looks very much like the entire project is dead in the fjord.
So why should you care? Why should Lilyhammer get its fourth season? In terms of quality, Lilyhammer will never be uttered in the same breath as shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, or Breaking Bad, but what the show lacks in stature it makes up for in a shed load of fun. Lilyhammer is a quirky little gem, jam-packed with unforgettable characters, endearing performances and some of the best snowscapes this side of Fargo; it’s gentle and brutal, like Last Of The Summer Wine with luges instead of bath-tubs, and rifles instead of walking sticks. In short, it’s an eminently watchable – and fiercely likable – show whose early termination would be, well… criminal.
Lilyhammer – for those of you who’ve spent the last few years laying low somewhere remote – follows the exploits of a New York Mafioso who’s on the lam in Lillehammer, Norway, as part of a witness protection deal he enters into after testifying against the newly installed boss of his crime family. Said Mafioso, Frank ‘The Fixer’ Tagliano, breaks his blood oath in order to wreak revenge on the don for trying to have him whacked, but especially for killing his beloved dog Lily. (The show’s title, a corruption of the spelling of Lillehammer, pays homage to Lily the dog, and also pokes fun at the way in which Anglophones like Frank continually mispronounce the town’s name)
Frank opts for Lillehammer over more traditional lamming destinations like Ohio or Florida, because he thought the town looked like a nice place to live when he saw it on TV during the 1994 Winter Olympics. It’s a delightfully bat-shit decision that sets the tone for a delightfully bat-shit series. When Frank ups sticks to Norway and embraces his new identity as Scanditalian immigrant Giovanni Hendriksen, the stage is set for a transatlantic-tastic fish-out-of-water comedy/drama that pits an unrepentantly greedy mafia dinosaur against the people of Norway.
The Norway presented to us in Lilyhammer is a caricature. In real life, Norway is one of the most democratic places on earth, with a happy and healthy populace, a robust economy, a fair and effective justice system, low crime and inclusive, well-run welfare provision. In the show – and especially through Frank’s eyes – Norway is an almost-communist, socialist hell-hole that’s crying out for some good old-fashioned American style gangster capitalism, a gift Frank’s more than eager to supply. Most of Lilyhammer’s Norwegian characters are presented as either bumbling bumpkins or bungling bureaucrats, most of whom have weird sexual proclivities and all of whom are easy prey for the wily mobster.
Everything in Lilyhammer happens at break-neck speed as arcs and plot-lines are crammed into compact eight-episode seasons. In the first season, it only takes Frank about two episodes to install himself as a night-club-owning crime boss, defeat the local biker gang, amass a loyal army, conquer Lillehammer, and get a local woman pregnant with twins. Sub-plots come and go at the speed of light; antagonists are introduced and dispatched with the same swift ferocity as a polar bear attack. You can accuse the show of a lot of things, but being boring isn’t one of them.
Frank swaggers through the snow like a recently unthawed Sly Stallone in Demolition Man, doling out arrogance, sexism, racism, threats, violence and homophobia (and refusing to wipe his ass with sea-shells), and seems to get rewarded at every turn. Perversely, he eventually attains the status of folk hero: a guy who gets things done because he isn’t burdened by pansy sentiments like civility or political correctness. Still, it’s all a bit of fun, and if Norway – objectively one of the best nations on earth – is able to poke fun at itself, then I’m more than happy to join in. Frank may be a little prick who carries with him the baggage of cultural imperialism, but he’s also an avalanche of fun to watch.
Frank is played by Steven Van Zandt, a man who does everything on Lilyhammer except fetch the tea between takes. He’s the star, co-creator, writer and the man who selects, secures and records the music for the show. Van Zandt’s presence in the show was the very thing that drew me to it in the first place. Clever old Netflix, harnessing a little of the magic of HBO in its first round of original programming. Silvio in the snow! Who could resist? And that’s pretty much what you get: a reprisal – in acting method at least – of the role that made Van Zandt famous in his own right.
Watching Lilyhammer is like watching a lost season of The Sopranos that takes place entirely in Silvio’s coma dreams, a feeling that is only enhanced by the sheer number of sly nods and winks – and in some cases blatant pointing – to David Chase’s masterpiece; hell, even Tony Sirico and Maureen Van Zandt make appearances. Thankfully, these allusions manage to avoid inviting unfavourable comparisons with the greatest show on earth, and instead come across in the spirit in which they were intended: as sometimes cheeky, always charming homages to a cultural Godparent.
Van Zandt’s acting repertoire consists of only two techniques – angry pout and non-committal pout – but somehow, despite his limitations as an actor, he’s perfect for the part. Especially if you approach Lilyhammer as a comedy first and a drama second. (And you’ve got to view it as a comedy, otherwise the fact that Frank – a tiny, wig-wearing 60-year-old thug completely divorced from his criminal power-base and connections – encounters no meaningful resistance from either the local women he seduces or the townsfolk he enslaves, would be a little hard to swallow.) Frank may be an improbable caricature, a one-dimensional sociopath with zero vulnerability and nada nuance, but Van Zandt wrings a lot of laughs from his portrayal of the character. Van Zandt has an irresistible moxie and a presence that grabs you by the lapels and threatens to make you sleep with the fishes if you don’t keep watching.
Thankfully, though, Van Zandt doesn’t carry the entire weight of the show on his own shoulders; he’s supported by an extremely talented cast of Norwegian actors, all of whom help to bring the richly-stitched town of Lillehammer to life. Among many others, there’s Jan, the bumptious and condescending employment and welfare officer, whose journey from blethering bureaucrat to outed sex-pest to reluctant gangster to murderer to Islamic fundamentalist and then back to sex-pest murderer again is a joy to behold, and not without its moments of pathos. There’s Laila, the steely yet homely police chief with the big heart and the pragmatic outlook, who later turns her hand to crime fiction. And there are the Lien brothers, Roar and Torgeir, two of Frank’s most loyal – but also his most inept – lieutenants.
Trond Fausa Aurvåg deserves to be singled out for his exceptional performance as Torgeir. He’s so good, in fact, that you’ll come to Lilyhammer for the Silvio, but you’ll stay for the Torgeir. He’s by far the best character in the show, functioning very much as its soul, conscience and funny-bone. A scruffy, gawky, bug-eyed man-child, he’s the sort of guy who still lives in his mum’s basement, and thinks that caps with ‘I Love Girls’ emblazoned on them will transform him into a stud. Torgeir is both easily led and steadfastly incorruptible when it comes to his own notions of right and wrong. When Frank wants to massacre a herd of reindeer to claim the insurance money, it’s Torgeir’s compassion and conviction that persuades him to change tack. Torgeir may be Frank’s doe-eyed lap-dog, but he’s one that bites hard when the situation demands it. I’d like to think that if Torgeir worked for NRK, he’d be the one brazenly uploading season three of Lilyhammer online so that the people of Norway wouldn’t have to pay a subscription fee to see it.
Torgeir’s also one of the only characters on the show capable of teasing out even a scintilla of humanity from Frank’s dark gangster heart. When Torgeir suffers a psychotic break and starts hallucinating that he’s Paul Kaye (long story), Frank’s the man who tracks him down and puts him back on the straight and narrow. When Torgeir needs a second chance to prove his worth as an olympic ski-jumper, Frank uses every trick in the book to make sure he gets it. (Incidentally, I smiled and smiled like a happy idiot when Torgeir realised his dreams) Even when Frank screws him over – frog and the scorpion style – he almost always puts things right, and goes out of his way to keep Torgeir safe. Their bond is closer in tone to father and son than don and henchman. Lilyhammer deserves a fourth season on the strength of Torgeir alone.
The show may have painted itself into a narrative corner by ridding Frank of his enemies and allowing him to do business unfettered by the constant fear of assassination, but there are still plenty of avenues to explore if the story is allowed to continue: how will Torgeir take to balancing fatherhood with his loyalties to Frank?; will he be strong enough to vanquish his demons?; will Frank consolidate or expand his empire, or simply retire? (“Just when I thought I was out…”); will Frank be made to pay for the corruption of his nearest and dearest? And what really became of Jan? No body, no death, remember (unless David Chase is involved). And let’s not forget the dead boob-maniac in the bath-tub.
So come on, Netflix, kiss and make-up with NRK, open your coffers, dig deep, splash the cash and bring your flag-ship show back to life: Lilyhammer is too cool, crazy, and quirky a show not to come back for another season. Long live Norway, long live Lilyhammer.