Who can forget the way the fate of Tony Soprano was left up in the air when "The Sopranos" finale abruptly faded to black. But what fans may not recall was the uncertain end to another "Sopranos" character, Silvio Dante, who was last seen in a coma in an intensive care unit after being shot. Whether he lived or died, we'll never know.
Maybe it's our hazy collective recollection of what happened to Steven Van Zandt's character that figured into Netflix's decision to cast him as the star of "Lilyhammer," which premiered Monday on the streaming service. Van Zandt's new role is so close to his old one, it's almost as if Dante woke from his coma, turned government informant and decamped for Lillehammer to escape from the Mafia he betrayed.
That's the basic storyline to "Lilyhammer," only now the Mafioso played by Van Zandt (seen above with former "Sopranos" cast mate Tony Sirico) is Frank "The Fixer" Stagliano, who heads for Scandinavia after ratting out the mob.
It doesn’t feel coincidental that Netflix chose Van Zandt to anchor its first original series. Company founder Reed Hastings has been very public about his desire to position Netflix as the next HBO, with original programming at the heart of its brand proposition rather than the catalog content that dominated its first decade.
What better way to recast consumer perception of Netflix than in the mold of both an actor and a role unearthed from HBO. It's a strangely paradoxical notion, beating the "Sopranos" channel to the future by seizing a piece of its past.
That said, it's not really a new strategy. Robert Greenblatt essentially did the same thing in his remarkable turnaround of Showtime, where as programming chief he launched several of the service's most successful series on the backs of HBO-bred talent including "Dexter's" Michael C. Hall ( "Six Feet Under") and "Nurse Jackie's" Edie Falco ("Sopranos").
Granted, Van Zandt is nowhere near their echelon; think of him as a low-budget version for a company that isn't spending more than 5% of its billion-plus programming budget on originals. It would even be a stretch to call Van Zant a character actor; he's more a caricature actor, sticking to such a stereotypical rendering of a Mafioso that he'll probably never get the chance to play anything else.
Sure, Van Zandt isn't depicting exactly the same character he played on "Sopranos"; HBO isn’t about to license a spinoff to an aspiring rival. But "Lilyhammer" is something of a crypto-spinoff in that the actor's character is so similar to his "Sopranos" incarnation that it might as well be the same part. Hell, Kelsey Grammer displayed more of a character evolution moving from "Cheers" to "Frasier" than Van Zandt does from "Sopranos" to "Lilyhammer."
Shamelessly derivative? Sure. But “Lilyhammer” is also a shrewd bridge strategy for getting viewers to shift their sense of Netflix as a pay-TV service that just happens not to be on TV in the strictest definition of the medium.
Which isn’t to say there’s anything inherently innovative about "Lilyhammer." The witness protection agency is among the hoariest plot devices in comedy, and the series doesn't do anything to put a particularly new spin on it. We watch Frank build a new life in his frozen city with the same bluster and verve he negotiated life as a gangster despite the fact Lillehamer feels like Mars to him–and vice versa.
But the newly rechristened Giovanni Henrisken has barely been in town more than 24 hours before he attempts to bribe a Norwegian official. The series thrusts its protagonist into his new environment so fast you would have assumed Netflix feared “Lilyhammer” would be canceled midway through the first episode.
In an interesting departure from TV standard operating procedure, Netflix puts all eight episodes of "Lilyhammer's" season on the service at once. It's not the kind of series you'll want to plow through in one sitting, though chances are you won't push it too far down in your Netflix queue, either.
"Lilyhammer" is no "Sopranos" in either the artistic or commercial sense but that doesn’t remotely mean Netflix failed here. The real takeaway is that the series isn’t bad. That might sound like the faintest of praises, but it's actually a compliment the TV industry should take heed of because there's a new programming alternative in town making the kind of sensible choices that could lead to future success.
Given Netflix's recent track record, competence wasn't necessarily a safe presumption. The calamitous pricing decisions the company made in late 2011 indicated it was capable of wild miscalculation on any front. And on paper, "Lilyhammer" could be interpreted as another missed swing: Financing a heavily subtitled series about a mobster in the witness relocation program produced in that hotbed of TV creativity we call Norway? Really??
If this sounds like a broad comedy, "Lilyhammer" actually plays with a little more subtlety than you might expect. The local yokels aren't the usual assortment of oddballs that populate these fish-out-of water tales; no one in Lillehammer seems stranger than Fra–sorry, Giovanni–and there's no laugh track to underscore the biggest yuks. My favorite moment was a small joke when a gruff old man puts down an injured sheep but not before telling Giovanni to avert his gaze. "You better turn away, you being a city boy," he says, oblivious to Giovanni's mob past.
It’s a joke that underscores a pretty big difference between Van Zandt’s new character and his old one, who was the polar opposite of a turncoat: Silvio Dante was the guy Tony Soprano often ordered to whack the snitches in their own midst, from Adriana La Cerva to James Altieri.
Now if Netflix can use him to kill old notions of its company brand, he’ll have truly made his bones.