Thursday, February 9, 2012

Lilyhammer: Netflix’s Impressive Entry into New Original Programming

Steven Van Zandt stars in Lilyhammer on Netflix.

It’s been a big week in new media: as speculations about the future of Apple iTV reached a fever pitch, and Amazon announced a new partnership with Viacom that adds over 2000 new titles to its service, Netflix, the granddaddy of streaming media, premiered its first original television series: Lilyhammer, a low-key wiseguy-out-of-water comedy starring The Sopranos alum Steven Van Zandt. This is only the first of three series that Netflix will be offering exclusively to its subscribers. Last week, it was officially announced that Netflix would air an original new season (with full original cast and writers) of Fox’s beleaguered but brilliant sitcom Arrested Development (2003-2006) in 2013. And later this year, 26 episodes of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards will be available exclusively on Netflix. Spacey will star and Oscar-nominated director Fincher (The Social Network) is directing the pilot.

But its innovative delivery system is fortunately not the only original feature of Lilyhammer. The show, a co-production by Netflix and NRK1 (the main channel of Norway’s public broadcaster), is a quirky black comedy, starring one familiar television face and a whole cast of Norwegian actors. What was completely unexpected, at least for me, was the fact that it is very much a Norwegian show, and much of the show’s dialogue is in Norwegian. When the show premiered on Norwegian television at the end of January, it broke all ratings records for the country with one in five Norwegians tuning in.

North American audiences are growing more familiar with Scandinavia – with the blockbuster success of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium” trilogy and the international success of Danish television’s The Killing, perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised to see Van Zandt make the leap, both as an actor and as co-writer of the first episode. Van Zandt is perhaps most famous to television viewers for playing Silvio “Sil” Dante on HBO’s The Sopranos, though music fans probably know him best as “Little Steven” from his time as guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. In his six seasons on The Sopranos, Sil is portrayed as the most loyal of Tony Soprano’s crew, regularly executing FBI informants, making his character on Lilyhammer at once a reflection and inversion of his more famous role.

In the pilot’s opening scenes, Van Zandt’s character, Frank Tagliano, turns informant and enters witness protection. Convinced that he won’t be safe anywhere in the U.S., and still charmed by what he saw on television from the 1994 Winter Olympics, Frankie opts to relocate to Lillehammer Norway and its “clean air, fresh white snow, gorgeous broads.”  The opening credits of Lilyhammer seem to be paying an implicit homage to The Sopranos, as Frankie’s car crosses a bridge out of New York City the scene shifts from the familiar Manhattan skyline and traffic to an ultra-modern train breezing through snowy Norwegian mountains. And so, mobster Frankie “The Fixer” Tagliano becomes the former club owner Giovanni Hendriksen, an American emigrant with Norwegian roots. Van Zandt is in practically every scene of the first episode, and his character so far remains notably likeable. Initially frustrated by the dreary one-story house (empty save for a freezer containing a single frozen pizza) and electric car that were waiting for him, Frankie – now called Johnny – slowly finds his own way among the denizens of this small mountain town. In the first episode, “Johnny” rescues a lost sheep, tries to bribe a public official, and participates in an illicit late night hunt for a predatory wolf that has been tyrannizing the community. (A morbid but somehow still sweet scene that has Frankie showing his new friends how to properly weigh down the wolf's corpse before dumping it into a frozen lake is typical of both of the show’s smarts and charm.)

But aside from the inescapable callbacks to The Sopranos, Lilyhammer looks and feels like little else on American television. And it isn’t American television. Developed by Norway’s Rubicon TV and filmed on location in Norway, with the exception of Van Zandt, the show not only has an almost exclusively Norwegian cast but crew too. The way the show is shot, the colour palette and the long takes, feels more European than North American. The majority of the dialogue is in Norwegian (subtitled in English) and most of Frankie’s scenes are bilingual, with Frankie speaking mobster-inflected New York English and using his (conveniently immediate) passive fluency in Norwegian to understand his costars.

Netflix hasn’t released any ratings of the show’s North American viewership, and why should it? The show dropped on Monday with all eight episodes of the first season, and in the short term, there is no easy way to measure the show’s popularity. Netflix viewers will come to it in their own time, likely over the course of many weeks. And what is precisely so promising about television’s evolution into a new direct subscription model is that any one new offering will only further sweeten an already substantial pot of available streaming television series and movies. If Lilyhammer is any indication, this might well encourage the production of smaller, riskier, and ever more interesting shows.

In the month since I've had Netflix at home, it is easy to see the attraction. For a fraction of the cost of even the most basic cable you get the instant gratification of channel surfing, along with digital quality big screen streaming. And, of particular interest to those of us becoming used to consuming television online and on DVD, there are no advertisements! There is one major caveat for Canadian viewers however: you need to pay attention to your bandwidth. Right now the programming available on Netflix Canada is a pale shadow of its U.S. sibling, offering a fraction of the content available down south, and the reason is clear. The vast majority of internet customers in Canada are beholden to Bell and Rogers – as the two major TV providers, both companies are particularly invested in the old way of doing things – and Canadian internet users are universally working with tight bandwidth caps. The duopoly of Bell and Rogers which controls access to the internet in most of Canada shows no sign that it will be active partners with Canadians as popular media firmly enters the 21st century, and why would they when there is no competition to encourage them to loosen the bonds of the restrictive (but assuredly profitable) bandwidth caps? Thankfully Netflix Canada, well aware of the limitation of Canadian broadband, allows users to adjust their settings to minimize the bandwidth of streaming shows by as much as two thirds. (30 hours of viewing for 9 GB of data, as opposed to the 31GB at the highest quality.) Still, if you are using it on a daily basis, you will need to keep track of your data usage, or else unpleasant surprises will await you when your bill arrives at the end of the month.

Bandwidth issues aside, with Lilyhammer, its recent (Canadian) exclusive airing of BBC’s The Hour, and all of its streaming content, Netflix is becoming a better and better investment. For those who don’t want to watch conventional TV, with its incessant and invasive advertising and largely inflexible viewing schedules, but who also don’t want to join the ranks of illegal downloaders, Netflix is an affordable and rewarding alternative. With Lilyhammer, Netflix offers a charming, if somewhat dark, story about new beginnings. And it is also an auspicious new beginning for Netflix.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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