Steven Van Zandt must, at times, slow down his busy life in order to take a moment to savor and appreciate where he finds his career today. With the exception of a brief sabbatical, he’s been the co-star of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band almost since the beginning, and yet, in his middle age, his life took the wildest of turns in 1999 when the then 49 year-old was offered the choice role of the dark, deadly, and brooding Silvio Dante in HBO’s seminal television series “The Sopranos.”
Then, at the end of that historic eight-year run, of all places, Norwegian television came calling with “Lilyhammer,” the story of a middle-aged New York gangster who ends up relocated in Lillehammer, Norway, courtesy of the Witness Protection Program. The show premiered to record ratings, which caught the attention of America’s new distribution giant, Netflix. On the lookout for something that would loudly declare its arrival in the world of original programming, Netflix premiered all eight episodes of “Lilyhammer” earlier this month through its streaming service.
If you’re expecting “The Sopranos,” no offense, but that’s just dumb. That was lightning in a bottle. Yes, Van Zandt brought along Silvio’s wig, hunched shoulders, and down-turned mouth, but the similarities end there. Though undeniably dangerous (especially when threatened), willing to throw a punch, and always on the hustle, this new character, “Johnny,” isn’t quite the cold-blooded murderer who famously whacked Adriana.
The show, however, is a delight. The wife and I devoured and savored all eight episodes over a single weekend and now we can’t wait for season two (which has already been ordered.) While ‘Lilyhammer’ doesn’t go to the same dark places the “Sopranos” went, and the characters are nowhere as complex, to the show’s credit, that’s not the goal.
Instead, we get a funny, fresh and addictive fish-out-water comedy/drama that focuses on our flawed protagonist as he attempts to chisel out a life in a stark, cold country where he doesn’t speak the language (though he does understand it). The pleasure to be had in all of this is how supremely capable Johnny is. So capable, in fact, that just a few episodes in, the roles reverse and it’s those around Johnny who become the fish-out-of-water as one man single-handedly bends an entire country to his will.
According to the show, the country of Norway is a Leftist’s wet dream. There’s national healthcare, and everything from hunting to building to creating a new business to getting a driver’s license is over-regulated to the point of absurdity. Worse still, the men have mostly been emasculated into sniveling, helpless do-gooders who believe in “conflict resolution,” the church of trash separation, and accepting the unacceptable when it comes to bureaucratic rules.
The entire premise of “Lilyhammer” is to mock, ridicule, and undermine a nanny state that has all but destroyed human ingenuity and creativity. Johnny might be a gangster, but he’s an all-American gangster who has no patience for nonsense and who knows how to get things done. He also does something the eunuchs around him won’t — he’s chivalrous.
In episode three, something happened that I never thought I would see on television. A sexist fundamentalist Muslim gets what he deserves (or what anyone who does such a thing deserves) after he intentionally and publicly humiliates a woman. Johnny catches up with the punk in the men’s room and slaps him around like a little bitch. I about fell out of my chair and was certain that the show would never allow this to stand as a moment to rejoice. But I was wrong.
That’s the kind show this is. In other words, it’s the kind of show you would never see produced here in America, because every episode revolves around our hero standing up for human liberty, masculinity and even nationalism. Every year Norway holds their own 4th of July, and when Johnny sees that his girlfriend’s son has written a speech about tolerance, peace, love, and multiculturalism — he tells the kid not to apologize for Norway, but to be proud of his country and to stand up for it. The end result is one of the series’ highlights.
No matter what leftist absurdity Johnny’s faced with, the show does a beautiful job of deconstructing not only the absurdity itself, but also the dehumanizing effect out-of-control statism has on the human soul and spirit — how bureaucracies breed tyrannical bureaucrats who revel in the power given to them by the state to be unreasonable, rude, dictatorial, corrupt, and ineffective.
Johnny comes to town and liberates the town, not only with good, old-fashioned American common sense, but also by beating them at their own corrupt game — everyone from lazy socialized doctors to unions to the DMV to the “Gandhi-spouting hippie” who holds up the development of some land just because he can.
The best news is that all of this is presented with wit, charm, humor, interesting characters, very good acting (especially Van Zandt), and very good writing. While each episode is pretty much self-contained, there is an over-arching story and drama that keeps you coming back as the characters and their relationships slowly evolve. This is a quality television show that might not reach the heights of a “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” but it certainly hangs in there with “The Closer” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
But more than that, “Lilyhammer” is an absolute breath of politically incorrect air. As we sit here and watch the hapless and hopeless Republican party constantly outsmarted by the media and Barack Obama as our liberties are stripped away, I promise you that “Lilyhammer” will help to get you through the night.