Aware that an audience exists for foreign language programming BBC Acquisitions has cast its net far and wide in the hope to build on the ratings success of The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge but with its latest purchase Lilyhammer viewer loyalty may be tested to its limits.
At the time of writing a transmission slot for the programme has yet to be formally announced and to avoid spoiling viewer appreciation this blog shall primarily refer to the pilot episode although events in later episodes will be loosely referenced.
The series is a joint production between Norwegian broadcaster NRK1 and the American online content provider Netflix. Interestingly, subscribers to the American version of Netflix are able to access all eight episodes thus we may perhaps be entering into a new paradigm shift with regards the production and consumption of televisual texts, one in which the week long interlude between segments is eroded by online broadcasters emulating the experience of consuming a DVD boxset.
Lilyhammer is a comedy-drama which knowingly and playfully recycles the tropes of the American gangster genre within a ‘fish out of water’ narrative. The approach taken by the producers is not new and was previously undertaken by the French-Canadian filmic text Crime Spree and whilst that movie is relatively obscure the similarity in tone, obviousness of the humour and predictability of the narrative’s arc suggests that British audience may lose patience with the show long before the eighth episode is screened.
To non music aficionados Steven Van Zandt may be most recognisable for his role of Silvio Dante in The Sopranos. As Silvio Dante Van Zandt would frequently invoke other filmic and televisual gangster texts and his casting in Lilyhammer acknowledges and accentuates the intersection of assorted archetypes which the audience may draw upon when engaging with the transmitted artefact. In this series he portrays a gangster known as Frankie “The Fixer” Tagliano who is forced to enter into the Witness Protection Programme and relocates to Lillehammer, Norway.
The series opens at funeral for a leading member of the American Mafia. As is the norm within this subgenre the proceedings are held in a Chapel of Rest, gangsters hold court with thin proximity of an open casket coffin and through clunky expositional dialogue we learn of the backstory, current group dynamics, and potential sources of narrative disequlibrium. The viewer will, inevitably, feel that s/he has seen this before many times and that is the key to the scene and the text, as a series. Depending on one’s viewpoint the over familiarity of (sub) generic codes employed either affords the producer to construct a postmodern text which recycles tropes for the purposes of social and cultural commentary or signifies an alarming sense of derivativeness which is worthy of significant critical scorn and the employment of the tv remote in the quest for better programming than this drivel.
Following a bungled assassination attempt Frankie agrees to enter into the Witness Protection Programme on the basis that he is relocated to Lillehammer having been impressed with televisual footage of the area whilst watching the 1994 Winter Olympics and with this clumsy set up the producers yet again ram home the point that this is a series which plays upon media representations and referentially. Having relocated to Norway under the assumed name of Giovanni Henriksson, Frankie swiftly becomes proficient in the language despite spending much of the pilot listening to an instructional CD.
Scenes frequently switch from English to Norwegian in a dramatically implausible manner which is no doubt an attempt to cater for the two producers and their respective audiences. Whenever this occurs I find myself experiencing a level of disbelief that I haven’t encountered since the BBC cancelled Eldorado.
After the expositional cold open the series firmly begins with a scene set on a train which is designed to introduce several characters that viewers will come to know more fully over the following weeks and show Frankie’s dramatic and comedic strength. Riffing off a similar sequence in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Frankie remonstrates with anti social behaviour displayed by youths and wins the tacit approval of the woman who will become his love interest and an elder male who will assist in ensuring Frankie is not convicted of an offence by the end of the episode. This early sequence demonstrates that the set-ups are far too obvious but viewers may gain pleasure from the text’s predictability.
By the end of the pilot Frankie has managed to become the owner of a local nightclub, infuriate the local police and embark upon a relationship whilst simultaneously corrupting the fabric of Lillehammer’s society. By the end of the series he manages to make the Chief of Police an accessory , after the fact, in a murder and on one reading this may just be the comic extrapolation of the archetypes dramatic potential. Alternatively, this may be a televisual discourse coded within a popular generic form that transmits the message that immigration is bad for Norwegian society.
My reading of the text increasingly became sensitive to the deeply problematic racial stereotyping employed particularly in scenes where the immigrant population were being forced to assimilate but were represented as being harmful to community cohesion and the impariality of Norwegian public services.
Netflix and NRK1 have expressed their support for the series through the commissioning of a further season which is due to start filming when Van Zandt’s commitments for Bruce Springsteen’s tour come to an end.
I can only hope that BBC Four decides to invest its money elsewhere and drops this turkey from its schedules.