The show is unusual because of its oil-and-water circumstances, its star, and especially its bilingual nature (English and Norwegian), which usually is grounds for a death sentence unless it's either Spanish or Elvish. Lilyhammer does have something logical in its favor, however: the underdog factor.
Our heroes of late (Dr. House, Dexter, and Mr. White, to name a few) were not exactly role models for social behavior, but they won us over nonetheless. Another name to add to the roster is Frank Tagliano—at least in the Big Apple. In Norway, he goes by Johnny Henriksen. Confused? Good! Read on.
The lead is played by Steven Van Zandt; not a new name, but he is not exactly a household name neither. His most notable role prior to Frank Tagliano/Johnny Henriksen in Lilyhammer was Silvio Dante in The Sopranos. His other works include…well that's it. This man is no actor; he's a rock star. More on that later.
Van Zandt's persona, physique, and speech make him typecast for the New York mob type. Everything about him reeks extortion, bribes, threats, and calzones, capisce? So it is no surprise that the series begins with hero the near-victim of a whack by a fellow mafioso. Frank (Van Zandt) testifies against his boss to the FBI in exchange for the witness protection program. Frank chooses to go to Lillehammer, Norway, of all places, because "Nobody but nobody" will be looking for him there. So he departs from New York City under the alias of Johnny Henriksen.
For those familiar with Scandinavian culture, you will find this series hilarious as you see the clash of gangster "money-takes-all" attitude versus the local naiveté of simple small-town folks from a corruption-free society. Every place has its underbelly, however, and Frank manages to find a way to exploit the subtle weaknesses.
There is plenty of accuracy in depicting the lifestyle and feel of Norway, and so it should be: the producers and writers are Norwegians themselves. There is also no shortage of social critiques as Frank enters the integration program offered to immigrants by the local government. Other things, such as fatherhood, racism, and regional rivalry are brought to light as well.
For those unfamiliar with Scandinavian culture, you will enjoy this series and are in for a treat if you miss old-school mafia-type scenarios. Despite the nuances of one or two logistical discrepancies (Frank starts to understand Norwegian a bit too quickly), this show is still all hits and no misses for me. It opens potential doors for other cultural mash-ups and social studies as Lilyhammer is nothing short of an entertaining voyage we take vicariously, courtesy of "Johnny."
As an underrated honorable mention, Steven Van Zandt also is a musician/guitarist from the Jersey Shore music scene of the mid 1960s. He's played with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on and off again for decades. On his own, he also played with countless names in the industry and was a politically driven frontman for his band Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul in the 1980s and 1990s as well as being the cofounder of Artists United Against Apartheid. Now that is a spicy meatball!