Assume Tony died in the series finale of The Sopranos and Paulie Walnuts hopped Silvio to become boss. Then assume Silvio got mad, retaliated by turning FBI informant — because Paulie was always kind of an officious prick anyway — and fled to Norway to avoid his whacking.
This is how I watched Lilyhammer, a Norwegian TV-turned-Netflix show that, in a spiritual way, could be the continuing story of Silvio Dante, if he woke up from that coma. It could also be a Sopranos methadone, but it’s not.
Steven Van Zandt plays Frank Tagliano, a Silvio Dante spoof and ex-underboss exiled to Norway after breaking his vow of omertà. In Lillehammer, he becomes Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen and opens his Rick Blaine nightclub while recruiting a group of lovable but intellectually impoverished Norwegians to be his ersatz mafia. Frank goes to Lillehammer because he thought it looked nice on TV during the 1994 Winter Olympics.
It’s a fun premise that’s best when it’s taken to absurdity — a boss orders a hit on a guy who stole his grandmother’s recipes — but that doesn’t happen enough. Lilyhammer is a never-homogenizing mixture of comedy, farce and drama that is driven by morons achieving despite themselves.
The show zigzags in and out of genres and styles. The conflicts aren’t resolved; they dissolve. Actions have consequences only if they need to, and characters change personalities — which aren’t developed anyway — to make it easier to get to the next episode. They are more pawns than people.
The most compelling character is an idiot social worker and sexual deviant named Jan. Things happen to him because of his decisions. His problems, unlike Frank’s, don’t just disappear because the person driving the conflict decides to agree with him. I’d rather watch a show about Jan.
Lilyhammer cheaply explains all the agreement by touting Frank’s conflict-resolution abilities — he’s Frank “the Fixer” — and pushes that part of Frank’s one-note characterization, especially in Season 3. Another issue is that Frank never doubts anything he does. He has no inner conflict, but why would he? None of his actions affect him in significant ways. He lives in an accountability vacuum.
Biker gang wants to kill him for accidentally stealing their wine? Frank makes friends.
Ex-girlfriend and mother of his twins gets mad at him for being a gangster? Frank gets dumped but makes friends.
Cop finds Frank burying a body the woods? Frank makes friends — after he already made friends with the assassin who killed the guy they’re burying in the woods.
The worst is when Frank is accepted lovingly back into the mafia, despite his mortal sin of informing, submarining the show’s premise and making you wonder, “What the hell?”
There are also no remarkable female characters, and the one the show did introduce — a cop and potentially great foil for Frank — barely made a cameo. Before she disappeared, though, she, of course, made friends with Frank.
Overall, the show is entertaining, self-aware enough to make it fun, but it’s all undercut by a lack of cohesion. They show has no firm identity, other than making Casablanca and mobster-movie references, and pushing pathos when it’s convenient.
It is unfair to compare Lilyhammer to The Sopranos because they are different shows doing different things. The Sopranos is consistent and defined, with a plot driven by entropy and lower and lower character nadirs. Conflict is pushed until something detonates, and all that’s left is the dead body of someone you can’t believe David Chase murdered. No character is killed as a gimmick, and each death feels unavoidable in the armature of the plot.
Lilyhammer just does what it wants, whenever it wants, meandering through genres and making shit up. It’s like a good show done in a lazy way.