I was introduced to Lilyhammer over the holidays by my father, who said, ‘I've been wanting to see this show and you should too,' and did so in a way that parents do, which is encouragement with a dusting of guilt if you refuse. But hey, I watched some of it, and there was enough there that made me want to check out more of the show, which brings us to the review that you, dear reader, have clicked on. Cool story, I know.
Admittedly, the premise of Lilyhammer is cause for trepidation. Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano is a mobster in New York, attending the funeral of a comrade. Frank is played by Steven Van Zandt in what appears to be an extension of his role as Silvio from The Sopranos, but I digress. Frank decides that after this event (along with an attempt on his life) that he has had enough of the Mafioso life and decides to turn state's witness for the FBI. In exchange for his testimony he becomes part of the Witness Relocation Program, and of all the places he requests, he asks to go to Lillehammer, the sleepy Norwegian hamlet which played host to the 1994 Winter Olympics (and the event that helped Frank become enamored with the town and inspired his location request). The show then chronicles his acclimation to this new environment and interaction with the town's citizenry.
Watching a gangster become part of society is something that we have seen before in comedy, most notably with Analyze This. Even watching them in Witness Protection has been explored in the Steve Martin film My Blue Heaven, so there is a level of expectation when it comes to viewing Lilyhammer. With that said, the vital component in the show, Frank's acclimation to Norway, is done rather well on Van Zandt's watch. Frank becomes Giovanni Henriksen when he gets to Lillehammer, which he dubs "Lilyhammer" both on his pronunciation and as a nod to his dog Lily, who was killed in the attempt on Frank's life. As Giovanni, Van Zandt is an open back in the introductory episodes to his arrival in the town, even calling himself "Johnny" for an additional comfort level to the townspeople, whether it is the chief of police (Anne Krigsvoll) or to a local schoolteacher named Sigrid (Marian Saastad Ottesen) and her son Jonas.
With Giovanni's initial phase of life in Norway accomplished, he eventually turns to ways to pass the time in his new life. At first they are with pure intentions, but the local employment office representative scoffs at Giovanni's desires, forcing Giovanni to resort to his old measures as Frank to start looking for a job and he winds up opening a bar in town doing some of the same things he did in New York. Giovanni gains a business partner in Torgeir (Trond Fausa Aurvag), who also serves as Giovanni's muscle to a degree, and maintains a working relationship with the local Norwegian biker gang. Soon the police start to become suspicious of Giovanni's past, specifically one officer named Geir (Kyrre Hellum) who begins to investigate.
While the first leg of Giovanni's Norwegian tales are decent, it is the second phase of them, the more inevitable ones where "Frank" pops up more and more often, that are disappointing. There is little doubt that two things are going to happen in the first season: Giovanni will be doing some things that Frank is an expert in doing, and Frank's old friends in New York find him and want to kill him. Those things are handled rather nondescriptly, almost in a paint by numbers fashion, and nothing that Giovanni or his associates do as part of this really stands out for the viewer.
However, there is an underrated part of Lilyhammer that does make for an impact, and that is the effect of Giovanni on those who were unfamiliar with him before he got there. Ultimately, Giovanni is a bad guy, and when he gets involved with the Norwegians, the relationships with virtually all of them seem to gradually deteriorate. His relationship with Sigrid is charming but becomes something similar to what Frank may have had countless times before in New York. The police, while initially charmed by Giovanni, eventually learn of his past life, but not before some tragic circumstances occur. Perhaps this ‘toxicity' is crystallized when Giovanni runs into an expectant father, who holds priority in a hospital and an obstetrician that Giovanni would like to have for Sigrid. Giovanni lures him in with poker, and puts the hook to him (figuratively) at the most opportune time, leaving the man without the medical arrangement for his wife. Ironically, it is like the Sopranos episode "The Happy Wanderer," where a friend becomes a target for Tony and is ruined as a result, despite their personal relationship.
Lilyhammer does have some roughness around the edges, but there are enough compelling elements going for it that could make for intriguing viewing. Giovanni only scratches the surface in his explorations, and there is likely much more within Frank's universe where the two worlds will collide more frequently, and the ensemble (who generally provides decent performances through the show) will improve as a result. The show's second season recently premiered on Netflix and a third is on the way, to say nothing for the popularity it receives in Norway, but it has the feel of a show trending upwards.
The first season of Lilyhammer spans eight episodes and covers two Blu-ray discs, and all of the episodes are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, consistent with their original broadcast format. The Norwegian exteriors due get their fair share of justice in high definition, though there are moments where it lacks some sharpness in the background. Image detail in the foreground is decent without much in the way of DNR, and the show's color palette, be it the whites and grays of winter or the greens of spring all look natural without saturation or blown out moments. This is generally solid listening material.
The DTS-HD MA two-channel track was initially a bit of a surprise, but it serves the show well. Dialogue is consistent in the center channel and when Johnny takes over the club, the music in it fills the front of the soundstage nicely and even has some rumbling in the subwoofer to take additional advantage. Dialogue is consistent and well-balanced as well, requiring little adjustment and for a two-channel track was a better than expected experience.
Not all that much, and all of it is on the second disc. "Concept Art" (1:01) is basically an animated look at the opening titles. "Outtakes" (5:39) is self-explanatory, but actually halfway through breaks out into a music video for the song Van Zandt performs as the character in the season. "Making of the Theme" (3:03) shows Van Zandt in a music studio with some musicians as they worked on the show's theme song.
With a familiar face and premise, Lilyhammer does have some hurdles placed in front of it, but it serves to have some long-term benefit in exploring some emotional depth that those before it failed to do, and Van Zandt's presence serves as a bit of a gateway to enjoy the performances of his Norwegian colleagues. Technically, the show is fine though could use some work on the bonus material. But with the show's streaming home, it is a quick and entertaining binge watch for those looking for something new to check out.