In "Lilyhammer," whose eight parts debut Monday as an exclusive Netflix stream, Steven Van Zandt retrieves his Silvio wig from the "Sopranos" costume box to play Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano, a New York mobster who retreats into witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway. He remembers the town from broadcasts of the 1994 Winter Olympics as a place of "clean air, fresh white snow, gorgeous broads" and figures it will be the last place anyone would think to look for him. You know how that will go.
To say that this is the first original series from the video rental giant is not to say that it originated with the company. It was made by a Norwegian company for Norwegian television, where it premiered at the end of January to an estimated one-fifth of the nation, and Netflix acquired it for exclusive distribution over here. With two other high-profile series on deck — a long-awaited fourth season of "Arrested Development"and the David Fincher-Kevin Spacey production"House of Cards" — Netflix is making its small bid to become the next HBO.
Created and written by Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, with a third writing credit going to Van Zandt himself, "Lilyhammer" is from the Norwegian point of view a fish-out-of-water story as seen by the water. It's a Norwegian story, with Norwegian issues Frank is used to highlight. Among other things, he's an immigrant in a country where immigration is a subject of great controversy and a lawbreaker in a land built on rules and regulations. (The Norwegian premiere was held up nearly a month while the show was scrubbed of illegal product placements.) Only the first hour was made available for review, and it remains to be seen whether Frank's flexing of New York muscle — which, initially at least, he uses more to restore order than to create chaos — will enrich or corrupt his new community. And, of course, what the community will do to or for him.
For American viewers, Van Zandt is, of course, a surviving fragment of "The Sopranos," while his Frank is one of our beloved fictional types, the capable, independent outlaw. The Norwegians are the foreigners here, and Norway the foreign land. But that remoteness is part of the show's appeal: The gorgeously rendered low skies and low sun, the crepuscular Northern light and snow-packed streets, the profusion of parkas and reindeer sweaters, the wintry hush that wraps the unhurried yet often suspenseful action are part of what you're paying for, should you choose to pay for it. (I note that the music is by Frans Bak, who scored AMC's"The Killing," another cold-climate tale.)
Bumbling about in thick clothes, listening to tapes that teach him the Norwegian for "Sorry, we are out of bread" and "I have no mittens," Van Zandt — who reliably lightened the tone at"The Sopranos"— turns in a charming, semi-sweet performance as a person not quite starting fresh. It is less work than you might imagine to accept him as a leading man, and he's more relaxed here than on his previous series, typically hunched shoulders and strenuously downturned mouth notwithstanding.
The Norwegian actors, who switch from English to Norwegian and are subtitled as necessary, include Marian Saastad Ottesen as a (possibly) single mother and budding love interest, Trond Fausa Aurvaag as a local slacker and probable sidekick, Anne Krigsvoll as the town's chief of police (and Frank's new neighbor), and Fridtjov Såheim as the county bureaucrat. They underplay to good effect; it doesn't take long to fall into their rhythms.