On March 1, the Internet streaming service Netflix lost its contract with Starz. This means the service no longer has access to a whole host of popular movies such as Toy Story 3, Tron and Scarface. Executives at the beleaguered company (remember the whole Qwikster debacle?) say this is no big deal, as Netflix subscribers now spend upwards of 80 percent of their time downloading TV series. Yup, Netflix is usurping TiVo as the preferred method for television watching.
Further cementing this turn of fortunes is the fact that Netflix is actively producing its own exclusive TV shows. The company made huge headlines last year when it acquired the rights to cult favorite “Arrested Development.” Two new seasons and a feature film are expected to be available for download by 2013. In the meantime, Netflix has offered up its very first original series, the cross-cultural gangster series “Lilyhammer.”
The show stars Bruce Springsteen guitarist and former “Sopranos” goon Steven Van Zandt—which begs the question: How did the rock star become Hollywood’s go-to goombah? In his second legitimate acting gig, Van Zandt plays New Jersey mobster Frank Tagliano. When his godfather passes away and his dog gets assassinated, Frank finds himself the target of squabbling Mafia kingpins. Before the credits on the opening episode roll, he’s enlisted in the FBI’s witness relocation program and requested a transfer to Lillehammer, Norway. (Frank saw it on TV during the 1994 Winter Olympics and thought it looked nice.)
What follows is your basic fish-out-of-water comedy, with a bit of larcenous behavior thrown in for good measure. Though the series bills itself as a “dramedy,” the comedy is fairly light. There are two or three chuckles per episode, but the writers don’t exactly work the punch lines here. Instead, our main man Frank romances a local schoolteacher (Marian Saastad Ottesen), tries to open his own sports bar and eventually blackmails, extorts and shoots his way into the Norwegian “underworld” (such as it is).
“Lilyhammer” is clearly a small series, shot on a strict budget. The first season consists of eight 45-minute episodes. There’s a tight cast of characters, some limited settings and a tiny bit of action. Mostly, it’s an amusing character study about a good-natured, not-quite-reformed Mafioso hanging out with a bunch of Nordic rubes. Those expecting “Northern Exposure” levels of engagement would do well to dial it back. “Lilyhammer” isn’t going to be anybody’s favorite show—but given that you can download all eight episodes right now, it does make for an entertaining weekend-filler. Filming on a proposed second season has allegedly been interrupted by a Bruce Springsteen concert tour. So it’s not exactly clear if there will be a second season. If not, I’ll live.
For a first shot at producing a TV series that’s not actually on TV, “Lilyhammer” shows promise. While the idea of Netflix slowly losing its ability to deliver feature films isn’t exactly a comfort, the promise of more original, limited-run series almost makes up for it. ... I said almost.