Any true boxset addict will have long ago watched and rewatched TV’s greatest ever achievement, The Sopranos, and if so, will have noticed the trailers for the second series of Netflix’s original comedy Lilyhammer with some trepidation.
Led by Steven Van Zandt – aka Silvio Dante, aka Tony Soprano’s right hand man – the show’s uninspiring premise is of a mobster trying to acclimatize to civilian life after entering the witness protection program with hilarious consequences.
For gangster genre aficionados, this sounds about as appealing as watching 'Goodfellas: The Sequel!’ (which Robert De Niro’s recent, late-career turkey The Family essentially was).
Over Christmas, I gave it a go anyway. And if, like me, you’re looking for something to fill the gap between Breaking Bad and House Of Cards season 2, I have some surprising news: this terrible-looking comedy is just the answer you’re looking for.
Van Zandt’s character, Frank ‘The Fixer’ Tagliano, testifies against his New York mob boss and opts to be relocated in the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer (the spelling error is deliberate) – all of which is hurriedly covered in a poor opening episode full of mob clichés and exposition masquerading as dialogue.
Frank pulls into the snowy town (picked because they hosted a Winter Olympics he enjoyed in 1994), and you brace yourself for a succession of awful ‘funny foreigner’ jokes.
But then something odd happens.
All around Van Zandt springs up this fantastic supporting cast of Norwegian actors, from Frank’s slow-witted but touchingly devoted sidekick Torgier (Trond Fausa Aurvåg) to the tragically lonely, Brent-esque welfare administrator Jan (Fridtjov Såheim) to the town’s police chief Laila, a smart, empathetic woman wasted in a department of parochial incompetents (Anne Krigsvol). As Frank slowly grows a new criminal empire in Lillehammer, the characters around him grow with surprising depth and complexity.
Though the comedy does trade heavily on fish-out-of-water culture clashes, it does so intelligently, sometimes poking fun at wishy-washy Scandinavian liberalism (where prison is more like a holiday camp) and sometimes Frank’s dated Republican values (he reacts with horror to meeting a male midwife), leaving you unsure whether this is an American view of Europe or a European look at America.
Particularly in the new second series, the plots have a pleasing Curb Your Enthusiasm way of weaving together at the end, and the overall theme of New York criminality infiltrating and corrupting a quaint, peaceful European town is well-paced and genuinely funny.
The only real issue, in fact, is Van Zandt himself, the reason I bothered to give the show a go in the first place.
A handful of good scenes (and a fantastic face) aside, there's a reason why, in six sprawling seasons, Silvio was the only recurring character in The Sopranos never to be given a single challenging storyline. As an actor, the man is entirely without range, indistinguishable during a tender love scene to when he’s handing out a brutal beating (to think he was orginally chosen to the play Tony Soprano himself *shudder*).
But Van Zandt is still very watchable. And while Frank and his former life is as hackneyed as mob portrayals come, what emerges from Lilyhammer’s other characters and gentle probing of Norwegian society is a comedy with just enough dramatic weight to find yourself investing in it emotionally.
Oh – and then there are the constant, beautifully rendered shots of winding winter roads, icy streams and perfect white mountainsides. As worlds to get lost in go, I’ll take that over New Jersey and the Bada Bing! any day.
Lilyhammer season 1 and 2 are now streaming on Netflix.