TV Review: Lilyhammer


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.

The Bridge: Week One

At an institutional level, i.e., the BBC, such is the perceived interest in the launch of the Swedish-Danish co-production The Bridge that BBC publications has taken the unusual step of  using the front cover of its listings publication,. Radio Times, to promote a foreign language text. Aware that a sector of its readership will have previously consumed the televisual texts Wallander, The Killing, Borgen, and Those Who Kill, the publisher acknowledges  the fanbase’s stored and shared knowledge through the use of accompanying text which employs intertextual coordinates thereby creating, recreating, and transmitting a schema  which  can be read at a multitude of levels. Readers of said publication are immediately invited to compare the female protagonist of The Bridge with Sarah Lund from The Killing and as I will further discuss throughout this entry this simultaneously signifies both a tacit sexism on behalf of the publisher and generic or even sub generic coding. Additional information informs the reader of several forthcoming texts which are marketed as “Scand-crime dramas”, thus establishing the possibility of a top down generic code being defined and imposed imposed upon the audience.

BBC4’s remit requires that the station is ‘intellectually and culturally enriching’ whilst reflecting ‘a range of ‘UK and international arts.’1 For several years it has transmitted foreign language televisual texts on Saturday evenings whilst simultaneously making them available on the iPlayer for those who wish to adopt alternative modes of viewing. Cultural commentators frequently cite the ratings success of The Killing in comparison to that of the American text Mad Men when discussing the possible emergence of a Nordic Noir (or Scandi-crime) genre and the audience’s activity. A sector of the audience for these texts is highly productive and engaged in activities which were once associated solely with the cult media fan but may now be emblematic of current levels of engagement with media texts within a digital environment. Viewer generated Twitter feeds discussing plot and character points serve as commentary,  group identification/membership,  and are rich in terms of analysing levels of engagement. Similarly, throughout the transmission Arrow Films’ Nordic Noir imprint maintained a twitter feed drawing reader’s attention to plot points and offering the chance to enter competitions. The online editions of several newspapers publish a weekly blog reviewing each week’s instalment accompanied with reader generated comments. Furthermore,  the rise in sales of Faroese sweaters2 since the transmission of The Killing suggests that high street retailers may be capitalising on viewer interest and allowing them to engage in cosplay, although the degree to which they are aware they are aware of this mode of behaviour is debatable and may even be irrelevant,

Fan practices with regards consumption of Nordic Noir is an emerging field of study and a degree of collusion between  audience members and the academy may have been facilitated by UCL’s Department of Scandinavian Studies which has previously hosted an event which discussed Borgen and is shortly to hold a similar symposium for The Bridge3. Arrow Films, the company which licenses a number of Scandi-crime televisual texts for DVD and Blu-Ray release within the UK and Ireland has tweeted details of the UCL event to its followers ensuring that attendance is not the sole preserve of the academic community.  The degree to which the support of a UCL department facilitates the emergence of a fan community and possible norms concerning interpretive practice is something that requires greater investigation over a sustained period of time. For now, I am grateful to them for providing an excellent online document which serves as a primer for many cultural, geographical, and social issues which are raised throughout The Bridge‘s ten episodes.

Despite having read Steig Larrssen’s Millenium trilogy, several Jo Nesbo texts and having viewed The Killing I was not aware of Scandi-crime as a genric form until BBC4’s Timeshift documentary Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction4. My initial thoughts after viewing this documentary text were as to how the tropes and texts which were accepted into the canon of this genre had been identified. With regards television we receive a comparatively small fraction of the output of  Scandinavian countries which means we can only analyse the texts we have been exposed to in relation to each other as opposed to identifying the extent to which they may, or may not, be representative samples of the output from a specific broadcaster. With regards the political dimensions of codifying a generic form, consideration must also be made to the role BBC 4 plays in terms of scheduling these texts within a  dedicated timeslot.

The Bridge is the latest show to be transmitted within the context of BBC4’s European drama slot. A bi-national production, the narrative focuses on a bi-national police investigation. Jointly commissioned by Danish broadcaster DR and Swedish broadcaster SVT it is a text that was designed on the basis that at least half of its audience would view whilst reading subtitles. Somewhat controversially Mark Lawson has posted a critical blog entry5 signalling that positive reception of this, and other Scandinavian texts, is far from universal within the journalistic fraternity. It remains to be seen if an increasingly negative press becomes the predominant trend  with regards Nordic Noir programming and the extent to which fan communities accept or reject this critical commentary. For now, let us take it as given that despite commanding impressive viewing figures for a minority digital channel those who might conceivably regard themselves as “fans” and engage in fannish practices are a small sector.

Viewing pleasures for imported drama programming is an evolving area of  enquiry. With each new text we engage in the activity of identifying actors who have appeared in productions and our reading of a  performance is in relation to other roles we have witnessed.  Arrow Films, in conjunction with the Infographics Agency, have provided a diagrammatic tool for those who wish to engage in the task of actor spotting. As we become better versed in terms of casting choices viz a vis imported drama viewers may gain an additional pleasure from identifying actors who have been cast in another, possibly tonally different, text. Commentators have suggested that this may reduce the levels of textual engagement but I would dispute this.

Although far from flawless The Bridge is a text that playfully directs and misdirects the viewer throughout all ten episodes. The opening instalment is particularly strong and its pre credit sequence illustrates the awareness of generic tropes on the part of the producers and how they may be subverted and/or enriched. Through the application of clever camera angles we are placed firmly in the narrative as a leather glove wearing driver heads towards Denmark. The checking of her/his wristwatch signifies that perhaps a deadline is about to be met and just as we the viewing public notice this small plot point the narrative cuts to the crisis emerging at the Oresund Bridge. Whilst the lights are switched off the killer is able to dispose of a cadaver and escape into the night. With this simple but effective pre credits sequence the viewer is presented with a variety of generic cues that deliberately suggest that the core concern of the narrative will be to identify who has committed the murder. Applying a schema formed through the consumption of a multitude of crime texts the viewer may initially conclude that a single corpse has been deposited and it is not until well after the opening credits have rolled that we are presented with information which reveals that the narrative’s investigative team have to contend with two murders.

The brilliant idea of placing a bi-sected corpse directly at the mid point of the Oresund Bridge thus ensuring that Danish and Swedish police forces must jointly mount an investigation is highly original, effective, and is also replete with potential readings which may be lost on a UK specific audience. Thanks to the aforementioned primer from UCL and an excellent article in The Independent6 I now have an awareness of the bridge’s potency as a symbol in both Danish and Swedish contexts.  The extent to which  members of the audience may also participate in extra curricular  research activities to ensure they approximate something near the preferred reading of the narrative is impossible to quantify at this stage. However, the Danish embassy has reported  significant level of enquiries for it to use Twitter as part of  a marketing strategy, tied in with the transmission dates of The Bridge,  promoting Danish cultural exports.  The degrees to which we are culturally removed from many of the cues represented within Nordic Noir texts coupled with an already established active audience may explain the fannish behaviour of those who actively engage in critical commentary, research  cultural and sub cultural artefacts and practices, and recreate clothing and food items represented within  the media texts but does not identify any reasons for which this mode of consumption and production does not attract derision from the press whilst cult media fans who express enthusiasm in similar ways are pathologized.

As I have previously discussed, pre transmission publicity drew attention to female casting thereby  marginalizing the male presence within any journalistic discourse. The extent to which this is a broadcaster employing intertextual coordinates to emphasize familiar elements  is problematic due to the possible influence this may have had on fan actions.  A cursory analysis of fan activity on twitter during the transmission of the opening pair of episodes revealed several profiles created under the name of female characters. Initial online communication focused on the female character and her clothing. At the time of writing several memes have begun to emerge which deal with the male co-lead and in particular his coat but at present it remains to be seen if the gender imbalance will be rectified as viewers become more familiar with The Bridge‘s narrative.

1 accessed 21 April 2012.




4 accessed 21 April 2012.