Netflix didn’t make “Lilyhammer,” a low-key black comedy starring Mr. Van Zandt, who played the stand-up guy Silvio Dante in “The Sopranos.” It was made by a Norwegian production company for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, which began showing it on Jan. 25. But Netflix helped finance it, and on Monday all eight episodes of the first season will have their American premiere via streaming video. If you want to watch them on a television, the set will have to be connected to Netflix — but it won’t have to be connected to a cable company.
Pretty soon such things will go without saying. For now they’re still novel, and “Lilyhammer” is both a trailblazer and an interesting test case. It may be a Netflix property, but it’s a traditional TV show, and the episodes are about 50 minutes long, far beyond the norm for a Web series.
“Lilyhammer” is most distinctive simply for being a foreign show presented in its original form, with subtitles (though a good share of the dialogue, including nearly all of Mr. Van Zandt’s, is in English). That’s something virtually unheard of on mainstream American television. The possibility of increased access to current foreign-language TV, beyond newscasts and Asian cartoons and soap operas, is a good reason to root for the streaming services.
So how is “Lilyhammer”? Odd mostly. It tries to combine elements of American mob stories and Scandinavian mysteries, seasoned with frequent overt references to “The Sopranos,” but the mixture is pretty flat in the first episode.
The jokey premise is that Mr. Van Zandt’s Frank Tagliano, having ratted out his boss, goes into witness protection and asks to be sent to Lillehammer, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics. He can’t pronounce its name, but he has a vision of the city as a Valhalla of cleanliness, rationality and order. The truth on the frozen ground is different, of course: grifters, perverts and punks slouching and grouching through life in a rules-bound nanny state.
With the new name Giovanni Hendriksen, he starts to set things straight in his no-nonsense manner, and there are some chuckles in the way Mr. Van Zandt and the filmmakers capitalize on gestures and expressions familiar from “The Sopranos.” (“Oh! Ohhhhh!”) But over all both the deadpan humor and the occasional bits of violence are tepid. It doesn’t feel as if the show’s makers had trouble settling on a tone; it feels as if they couldn’t muster the energy to come up with one.
Mr. Van Zandt is quite likable, but as an actor his resources are limited, and it’s asking a lot of him to carry a television-size series that shifts between tough-guy poses and culture-clash comedy, with middle-age romance thrown in. It doesn’t help that the abrupt shifts between English and Norwegian (which Giovanni apparently understands but hardly speaks) are unnatural and distracting.
Giovanni’s discovery of the sheep’s head in the road is amusing (and promising), but it’s undercut by a flat-footed, unnecessary explanation: “For a moment there I thought I was going to have to give Johnny Fontane a movie part.” We’ve seen “The Godfather” too. Funnier is a sequence in which Giovanni and his fledgling crew dispose of a dead wolf, weighing it down with rocks as if it were a wiseguy in the Meadowlands.
In Norway nearly a million people watched the first episode of “Lilyhammer”; proportionally, that’s about equal to the 58 million who watched the Giants beat the 49ers a few days earlier in America. However well the show does through Netflix, Mr. Van Zandt may be able to add another distinction to his résumé alongside “Sopranos” star and Bruce Springsteen sideman: the David Hasselhoff of Scandinavia.
On beginning Monday.
Produced by Rubicon TV AS. Created by Anne Bjornstad and Eilif Skodvin; written by Ms. Bjornstad, Mr. Skodvin and Steven Van Zandt; directed by Simen Alsvik, Geir Henning Hopland and Lisa Marie Gamlem; Lasse Hallberg and Mr. Van Zandt, executive producers; Trond Berg Nilsen and Agnete Thuland, producers.
WITH: Steven Van Zandt (Frankie Tagliano), Trond Fausa Aurvaag (Torgeir Lien), Marian Saastad Ottesen (Sigrid Haugli), Steinar Sagen (Roar Lien), Fridtjov Saheim (Jan Johansen), Sven Nordin (Julius Backe), Anne Krigsvoll (Laila Hovland), Mikael Aksnes-Pehrson (Jonas Haugli) and Kyrre Hellum (Geir Elvis Tvedt).