Three Cheers for ‘Lilyhammer’

lilyhammer-510cd1aa91edaIt’s only a slight exaggeration to say that half of the comedy you see on Norwegian TV is anodyne whimsy about Norwegian dialects and the other half is P.C. mockery of the U.S. and/or of that most pro-American of all Norwegian political parties, the classical-liberal Progress Party. The very funny Norwegian-produced series Lilyhammer, then, most of whose humor derives from parody of Norwegian social democracy – historically an almost verboten comic target – as well as of the country’s manners and mores, is a remarkable departure. Our hero is New York mobster Frank Tagliano (played admirably by Steven van Zandt of The Sopranos and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band), who, after turning state’s evidence, asks the Witness Protection Program to relocate him in Lillehammer, Norway, because he remembers watching the 1994 Winter Olympics on TV and being impressed by the “clean air, fresh white snow, gorgeous broads…and best of all, nobody’s gonna be looking for me there.” The fact that most Norwegians actually can laugh at cutting satire at the expense of their own society was proven by the show’s massive domestic success: a fifth of the country’s population watched the first season when it debuted in early 2012. It also performed well internationally on Netflix, on which its second season is now available.  

Frank’s life in Norway – where he goes by the name Giovanni (Johnny) Henriksen – amounts to a veritable introductory course in Norwegian culture and customs. He learns, for example, about dugnad, the “voluntary” sanitary and maintenance work that people who (for example) work in apartment buildings are more or less compelled to do for the common good. He discovers that thanks to Norway’s anal-retentive driving laws, his New York license isn’t valid and that it’ll take two months of tests – driving a stick-shift, no less – for him to get a Norwegian one (“All I want to do is drive a car, not the space shuttle”). He experiences the nightmare that is NAV, the maddeningly remote, rule-ridden Norwegian welfare and job-placement system, where he’s condescended to and discouraged in his efforts to open a nightclub. He’s introduced to hjemmebrent (moonshine), which, thanks to the staggeringly high prices at the government liquor monopoly, is far more widespread a phenomenon in Norway than in the U.S. Concerned about nocturnal vandals who’ve spray-painted his nightclub’s door, he hears about the natteraverne (“night ravens”), who, to his dismay, turn out not to be vigilantes but, rather, a gaggle of docile do-gooders, one of them a small, frail elderly woman, who walk the streets at night looking for troublemakers to engage in “dialogue.” (“Juvenile delinquents,” he sneers at one of these altruists, “are shaking in their boots tonight with you and grandma on the loose.”) He even spends a few days in a Norwegian prison, which he finds surprisingly cushy (“I should have been arrested a lot sooner!”) and where he and other inmates – and guards – are taught to play the recorder by a hippie lady. 

In the second season, Frank continues his education in Norwegian culture. Expanding his empire, he buys the local asylmottak, or refugee center – where would-be immigrants, mostly from the Muslim world, live while awaiting the government’s decisions on their asylum applications. When his girlfriend gives birth to a twin daughter and son, he’s thrust into the company of a local barnehage (day-care center) manager, who, to Frank’s visible distaste, puts on a Marxism-inspired puppet show for infants and toddlers about an imaginary country called “Muriburiland,” a socialist utopia where, he sings, there’s perfect solidarity and no such thing as profit. When the liquor supply at Frank’s nightclub runs low, he discovers to his surprise that the guy who smuggles booze for him is sykemeldt – that, in other words, he’s gone on sick leave, that open-ended, well-nigh sacred official exemption from all responsibilities that is a cornerstone of Norwegian society. (“Are you crazy?” Frank counters, demanding that the guy get back to work. “There’s no Obamacare for a bootlegger!”) From beginning to end, Lilyhammer is brilliantly observed, gratifyingly gutsy, and consistently on-target satire that captures the textures and rhythms of Norwegian life with unerring wit and insight.

Watching this series, one keeps expecting that at some point or other the authors are going to slip up, or give in, and present something from a P.C. perspective, a temptation which has proven to be the ruination of virtually every Norwegian cultural artefact of our time. But it never happens. At every turn, Frank’s own can-do, take-charge, individualistic American (and mafioso) assumptions about the way the world works are challenged by Norwegian passivity, fatalism, groupthink – not to mention the ubiquitous, by-the-book statism. But he challenges Norway back – urging his phlegmatic new friends to make something out of themselves, to stop having “dialogue” about problems and actually do something, to snap out of their docile stupor and refuse to take crap. When a wolf kills somebody’s pet sheep, he urges the locals to follow him into the woods to wreak revenge: “Why are we sitting around talking when we should be killing this f—ing thing?” When a friend’s twelve-year-old son, Jonas, is smacked around by another boy and Frank hears the kids’ teacher urging “dialogue,” he takes Jonas aside and explains how to fill a mitten with rocks. And after a male Muslim classmate in his orientation course for immigrants refuses to shake the female teacher’s hand (that would be haram), no one reacts except Frank, who slams the guy against a men’s room wall and says: “Hey, towelhead, listen, you might wrap your women like mummies back in Taliban country, but here we treat our broads with respect. Comprende?” Frank’s worldview – his pro-Americanism, his fierce anti-Communism, his admiration for Ronald Reagan, his contempt for welfare spongers – emerges in comic contexts but, in what may be a first for Norwegian television (or any Norwegian media today), these attitudes are presented not as ridiculous or reprehensible but as thoroughly reasonable.

For a viewer familiar with the Norwegian media, it can seem almost beyond belief that this show was created by two Norwegians, Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin. (Most of the episodes are co-written by one or both of them, with van Zandt himself collaborating on the second-season scripts.) Repeatedly, they do things that go far beyond anything I’ve ever seen a Norwegian television show dare to do. Having a sympathetic character call a Muslim a “towelhead”? Inconceivable. (Frank’s comment when he sees Muslims out skating? “Al Qaeda on ice.”) No less edgy, in Norway, than the Islam material – which, among other things, offers American viewers a pretty clear picture of the degree to which that religion has made inroads into Scandinavian society – are the hints that at least some Norwegian men these days are, shall we say, more than a bit too domesticated for their own good. When Frank’s girlfriend gets pregnant, the midwife turns out to be a rather wimpy male, while one of our protagonist’s new buddies is a pathetically browbeaten house hubby who’s taking several months of pappaperm (paternity leave) and whose disclosure that he’s had a vasectomy reveals that he is, indeed, both literally and figuratively castrated.   

It’s no mystery why so many Norwegians love this show. Frank does things that many of them would surely love to do, and expresses views that they may well share but that they’ve probably never articulated, except perhaps over family dinner. After all, when you’re anxious about ever-rising crime rates but are at the mercy of public officials (and not a few fellow citizens) who are more worried about offending criminals than protecting victims, what could appeal to you more than a program in which the hero, wearing the uniform of a bleeding-heart natteraver, no less, beats up a street punk who’s hit an old lady and, in reply to the incredulous brat’s question – “What kind of night ravens are you?” – growls back: “The kind you don’t want to f–k with”? In a country where a large percentage of the people are sick of seeing their tax money thrown at sub-Saharan dictators and perturbed by the rise of Islam in their own backyard, what could be more gratifying than a show whose leading character, appalled by the draft text of a kid’s May 17 (Constitution Day) speech, which oozes the usual Norwegian socialist-missionary sentiments about the need to remember Africa’s poor, rewrites it into a critique of backward immigrants who come to Norway just to commit street crimes and go on the dole?

Not that Frank, an immigrant himself, after all, is anti-immigrant per se: in one second-season episode, he meets a Somali man whose application for asylum in Norway has been rejected – but who, it turns out, is a terrific cook who would be a major asset to Frank’s nightclub. The show vividly contrasts the way in which this man is treated by the Norwegian immigration authorities – who, seemingly indifferent to questions of professional aptitude or excellence of character, don’t give a damn that he’s a decent, hardworking guy with a highly marketable skill who could contribute to Norway rather than sucking on its teat – with his treatment by Frank, who, upon meeting the man, recognizes immediately an opportunity to help someone else out while doing himself a good turn at the same time. Naturally, Frank finds a way to arrange for the Somali chef to stay in Norway and work for him – thus winning his instant affection and loyalty. The whole episode amounts to a beautiful fable about how much better things could be in Norway if the government approached immigration issues in a more commonsensically human and less robotically bureaucratic manner. 

Of course, Frank isn’t just a true-blue individualistic American – he’s a gangster who’s used to greasing palms and breaking legs to get his way, and part of his frustration with Norway is that all too many of the functionaries he runs across just aren’t corrupt like their counterparts back in New York (although virtually all of them prove to be corruptible). But the most important thing about Frank’s status as a mafioso, for Norwegian viewers, is that it makes Lilyhammer revolutionary in a very special way. Meaning what? Simply this: in Norway, as in other social-democratic countries, the lesson drawn from American gangster movies like The Godfather has long been that the U.S. is a country of cutthroat, kill-or-be-killed capitalism in which it’s impossible to be successful without being a crook. For Scandinavian social democrats, the very existence of the Mafia is viewed as definitive proof of the essentially corrupt nature of America (never mind that the Cosa Nostra is a Sicilian import); indeed, the don, the capo, is the American writ large. Repeatedly, and, it seems, deliberately, Lilyhammer overturns this notion, suggesting that far more than America, Norway is a country in which you have to operate outside the law if you want to make it big. As Lilyhammer demonstrates, the barriers put up by the Norwegian system to aspiring entrepreneurs are many and formidable; for bar owners like Frank, the road is an especially tough one, not least because they’re obliged to buy liquor from the government at retail prices and are therefore stuck with minuscule profit margins – unless, of course, like Frank, they manage to arrange alternative means of acquiring alcoholic beverages in bulk.

It took me a while to figure out precisely what was so touching for me about Lilyhammer. It’s this: despite the reflexive anti-Americanism of the Norwegian media establishment, professoriate, political elite, state bureaucrats, NGO operatives, and certain public-sector types (such as that day-care utopianist), who warn routinely against the increasing introduction into Norway of amerikanske tilstander (American conditions), Norway, like many of its Western European neighbors, is in fact a highly Americanized society – and most ordinary Norwegians happen to like it that way. In one second-season episode, the day-care Commie rants in a familiar way about Americanization, to which a young sweet-faced pedagogue says, quite simply, “I like America.” It’s a strangely moving declaration, and it’s faithful to the reality of everyday Norwegian life. Norwegians like America. Most of the music, movies, and TV shows that make up their lives comes from America. From earliest childhood, they have an attachment to America whose intensity is beyond measuring. (I need only look to my four-year-old Norwegian nephew, whose entire world is currently centered on the movie Cars and its sequels, spinoffs, and merchandising.) Lilyhammer is a product of that attachment. And it’s more: though it becomes clear early in the series that the show is an homage to American crime drama (with plentiful, and wonderfully witty, allusions to The Godfather, Goodfellas, and other such films), one eventually realizes that in addition to being a brilliantly observed, gratifyingly gutsy, consistently on-target satire that captures the textures and rhythms of Norwegian life with unerring wit, it’s also a salute to America  – a grateful acknowledgment of the huge place that American cultural products have in Norwegian lives, and a thumbs-up to American optimism and ambition, to the American impatience with institutions and suspicion of government, and to the American respect for people who contribute to society and do things their own way. This series is, beyond question, the work of people who have done it their own way – and in doing so have at once paid a splendid tribute to America’s culture and made a splendid contribution to Norway’s. 

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  • Jason P

    Can this be true? Can we get this TV show here? Great article, Bruce, who would have known behind all the criticism they actually like America … but I won’t spill their secret.

    • Charles Martel


      • Jason P

        Does it have subtitles? It must. Thanks.

        • remmy

          Subtitles are used for the Norwegian actors. Van Zandt speaks English throughout. It works pretty well.

        • mac691

          I absolutely love this show. If I didn’t get Netflix already, it would be worth getting Netflix just to watch “Lilyhammer.”

    • RLande

      My family and I were in Oslo on July 4, 4-5 years ago. We had a picnic at Vigeland park. The entire time we were there (about 3 hours), a Norwegian band played patriotic American songs. Their WWII museum has very nice tribute to the American Norwegian soldiers who parachuted into Norway and helped the Norwegian underground blow up the German heavy water plants. A similar exhibit can be seen at the Vesterheim museum in Decorah, Iowa.

      • Jason P

        That’s delightful to hear. Too often we hear the louder noise emanating from foreign leftists who claim to be voice of their nation. (PS I remember that WWII history and glad it is remembered there.) Now I wish I heard bands playing patriotic songs here in NYC.

    • Neal Mulligan

      It’s a Netflix original production.

    • AimToMisbehave

      It’s exclusive to Netflix in the US. Well worth signing up for the free month just to watch the first 2 seasons of Lillyhammer. Great show.

  • remmy

    Excellent show. Rush recommended Lilyhammer on his radio show. It’s available on Netflix.

  • Major_Stofil

    I would so LOVE to see this show in Sweden…

  • Leave Comments

    You say amazing for Norwegian television, this would be amazing for American TV. I still cannot believe that Tim Allens show, Last man standing, presents his conservatism as not a total nutcase and they actually make jokes about Obama and Obamacare. Granted very gentle jokes, but there are no shows on our TV that ever defend a conservative point of view, or else present us as hicks and crackpots. I live in SF and when people find out I am a conservative, their first reaction is , no you can’t be, your too smart. OMG.

  • mtnhikerdude

    Seems the Norwegians are waking up to the shared misery of Socialism.
    Maybe one day Americans in America will recognize
    Socialism / Obamaism Sucks ?

    • Bamaguje

      Interesting that many Norwegians like America for what she is, but Obama and other American leftists are intent on transforming America into Norway.

  • Donald J DaCosta

    Suggests that maybe, just maybe, the west can recover from its anti-American PC malaise by simply reminding itself who we really are, where we’re coming from and how we got lost along the way. That this fledgling movement got started in Norway would be a big plus. Wishful thinking? Yes, but getting back to the basics, the raw reality of human nature, would be nice and is a pleasant thought don’t you think?

  • Race_Dissident

    Two points: First, a show such as this could never be made in America, which leads me to believe Norway’s cultural elite caste is less reflexively Leftist than America’s. And second, the America that Lilyhammer salutes no longer exists. That America foundered on Leftist shoals for about four decades before finally capsizing on the reefs of Obamunism in the last decade. Norway did not become like America; America morphed into Norway. Or worse.

    • Morten A. Fagerli

      Oh yeah. Norway is really one terrible example to therest of theplanet. And what makes you believe the show actually salutes the U.S. of America?

  • danfan

    seemingly O/T, but WTH:
    Several years ago i bought Mr. Bawer’s book, “While Europe Slept” and gave it as a wedding present to my cousin’s eldest son. Turns out it was immensely helpful when they honeymooned ‘cross the pond.
    Recently, i purchased Mark Steyn’s “America Alone,” similarly, as a wedding present for that same cousin’s younger son. Not sure if they went on a honeymoon – maybe it skurred ‘em.

  • UCSPanther

    I’m surprised that the political correctness commissars in Norway allowed this show to be aired.

    • Morten A. Fagerli

      Why? We know the true value of free speech. Besides that we can take a joke, even if the joke is on us.

  • Bamaguje

    Any episode addressing Norwegian anti-Semitism?

  • john

    second series just started today in oz to my delight i am encouraged by your well written and informative piece in so far as it means one of my favourite new shows and actors i will see again even for athird series, at first i was a little baffled by its simp,e themes abd characters but the more i watched the more i was endeared to all its characters and porteait of norwegian life
    cheers bruce

  • Norwegian Wood

    I`m born and raised in Norway and we really are americanized over here. The first music I heard, first tv-shows, first movies, all of it came from America. And I like it, I like Norway and norwegian culture but America have always been our big brother, that big mysterious place `over there`. There`s just 5 millions of us and we live on a patch of land thats barely the size of New Mexico, we`re a small place hidden away up north so to us the great US of A with all its vastness will always be special.

  • Eva

    What an excellent article, thank you so much, Mr. Bawer. I spent two weekends watching all available episodes of Lilyhammer on Netflix. Super funny, side-splitting and very well-made. Norwegians are great people who will overcome the idiotic tyranny of socialism. My own people, Armenians, did. Never give up the fight and remember that you are a nation of brave explorers and charitable humanists such as Nansen who a century ago saved countless lives in the genocide committed against the defenseless Armenian population by murderous Turks. Here is a link to an article about dedicating a statue in his honor:

    • ladythalia

      Norway isn’t a socialist country, it’s social democratic and unlike socialist countries, very democratic. The Labour Party is Norway’s biggest party, so it seems we’re not in a hurry to overcome socialism, as you call it. I myself vote to the right, but I wouldn’t trade Norway for America. We’re not voted country to live in for nothing. That being said, I love watching Lilyhammer make fun of Norwegian peculiarities.

  • HøgeNord

    The Progress Party may not be as bad as the other political parties in the Norwegian parliament, but is far from being a classical-liberal (minarchism) party as the party is for big government (welfare state). They just think that they can administer socialism better than the Social Democrats.

  • BH206L3

    I loved it when the Bootlegger guy, was taking Stanley the sheep lover back to Sweden, said no problem I need some bacon! What is the deal with that? You can eat bacon in Norway? Then there was the Chief Of Police more interested in Waffles and Roll Cake than the hole they just dug!