A frank, funny – and courageously critical – look at social-democratic Norway.
It'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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