Lilyhammer: Season 1
It is fairly common for an actor to become type cast; it is part of success. If and actor excels in a particular role he finds himself considered for similar roles. If this happens a few times the performer might find he is type cast; tied to that familiar archetype. A good actor will make the most of this, embrace it and turn it into a steady career. Then there are actors that are able to embrace the character and in doing so bring new dimensions to it. An example that demonstrates the viewpoint can be found in a recent series, ‘Lilyhammer’. The first distinguishing characteristic of this series is its producers, Netflix. Rather than come from one of the traditional broadcast networks or cable networks ‘Lilyhammer’ represents an expansion of the trend of original television shows not made directly for TV. Companies involved with providing on demand streaming video. Originally the content consisted of films and previous or recently broadcast television episodes. Now the move is towards giving a great selection to the viewer than ever before imaginable. When I was a kid there were only a handful of channels not the hundreds of channels literally at your fingertips. Tying these two observations is the star of the show, Steven Van Zandt. After establishing himself as a member of the iconic rock group, Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, he went on to become an actor. While not unusual for such a transition to be attempted it is exceptionally rare for it to be accomplished so exceeding well.
Van Zandt’s big break as an actor came in HBO’s ‘The Sopranos’ the defining television organized crime drama. His role there was as the consigliere to the boss, Silvio Dante. In this series Van Zandt returns to familiar territory almost to the point of where his character in ‘The Sopranos’ left off. Van Zandt portrays Frank Tagliano, the underboss for the head of the most powerful crime family in New York City. His ability to address any adverse set of circumstances or efficiently resolve a problem that might arise has earned the moniker of ‘The Fixer’. When the boss dies Tagliano is unceremoniously passed over to assume the leadership in favor of Aldo Delucci (Thomas Grube), a man that Tagliano has been adversarial with for many years. Realizing that not only is any career advancement impossible but that his life experience is severely compromised Tagliano takes a proactive step of testifying against the new boss in return for witness protection.
There have been numerous TV and movie exploration of this situation but none have taken such an original approach as this vehicle. Tagliano’s one stipulation is to choose his new location. Since this is not an unusual request it is granted but much to the U.S. Marshall Service that location is Lillehammer, Norway. Frank had seen it on TV during the 1994 Winter Olympics and was greatly impressed but how clean a tranquil it appeared. It is also arguably the last place on the globe his former business associates would consider looking for him. Soon Frank is known as Norwegian-American immigrant Giovanni Henriksen. The cover story contains the rather thin provision of an Italian mother to explain the uncharacteristic black hair and olive complexion.
Although Giovanni sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb the locals are for the most part friendly and trusting, an American, especially one so different physically that the familiar Nordic phenotype some talk among the townsfolk is to be expected. One of the first locals he encounters is a pleasant woman, Laila Hovland (Anne Krigsvoll), his landlady who just happens to be the town’s Chief of Police, as Giovanni’s criminal nature begins to express itself Lalia’s instincts in law enforcement are sparked by several odd unusual occurrences that coincided with the appearance of the newest member of their community. At the local tavern he befriends a couple of local men, the twin Lien brothers, Roar (Steinar Sagen) and Togeir (Trond Fausa). Just as the scorpion of the famous fable must be true to his nature Giovanni almost immediately falls back on his familiar inclination which begins with eyeing the twins as the nucleus of his new crew.
In order to reestablish an outlet for his criminal proclivities and earn some cash, in this case Krone, Giovanni decides upon opening a nightclub. Upon discovery that even in this country bureaucrats still reign supreme in the government red tape controlling private business he goes to the appropriate ministry official. Relying on the business practices he is accustomed to Giovanni slides a rather thick envelope brimming with local currency towards the man on the other side of the desk. Much to his shock and dismay he is refused and rebuked. This is something he had never quite encountered in the State, an honest man in local government. This forces Giovanni to his backup plan. With the assistance of his new henchmen he blackmails the official into expediting the required paperwork. Wasting no time at all this displaced mobster employs the tactics that made in the ‘Fixer’ in the New York City underworld to take over the Norwegian criminal activities.
This is the point about how an exceptional actor can embrace type casting. Van Vandt is basically picking up right where ‘The Sopranos’ left off as an under boss poised to finally move up. The thing about career advancement in organized crime is getting passed over for a promotion can be seen as a prelude to a cement cloaked retirement. By accepting a role demanding such a unique depiction of his former part Van Zandt faced an extremely difficult challenge of infusing the new role with the elements which defined his previous character while transplanting him to a completely new and unexpected location. This added element of the stranger in a strange land can be one of the most effective methods to impart a fresh look and feel to an overly utilized character. In many Mob related films and television shows it was the consigliere that infused the project with the driving force and motivation working from behind the seat of power. Von Vandt used this as a springboard to form the foundation of Frankie layering on it the need to adapt his previously successful techniques to a culture entirely strange to him.
Von Vandt imbues Frankie with an inherent street smarts and ability to survive by blending in as much as possible. We are shown many scenes of him learning the language or studying the culture. While listening to a man with a prominent New York Italian accent trying to pronounce words in Norwegian may come across as comic relief but it goes far deeper to the development of the character, here is a man well accustomed to others making concessions to him taking the time and effort to adapt to the ways and language of his new home. The one short coming here is the season was a meager eight episodes. Part of this was apparently due to this series being the first one attempted by Netflix serving as the pilot for this new endeavor. The good news is it has been picked up for season two.