Lillyhammer: The Sopranos Meets Borgen And Misplaces The Humour

Sil from the Sopranos has been transported to Norway in BBC4’s new sitcom, to little success.
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Sil from the Sopranos has been transported to Norway in BBC4’s new sitcom, to little success.

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So. Comedy gangsters. Bit of a mixed history there. Funny gangsters have featured in some pretty good films (Some Like It Hot, In Bruges, Made), some very average films (Analyze This/ That, Wise Guys) and some shite (The Freshman, Lock Stock). Yes, before you start, Lock Stock is a comedy and, yes, it is shite. It seems that we don’t really like our gangsters funny; we want them nasty, brutal and, preferably, Italian-American.

On TV, the very best gangster show ever, The Sopranos, managed the difficult trick of incorporating some sublime moments of comedy without ever losing its menace and now one of the show’s best characters returns in his own all-but-spin-off show. Silvio ‘Sil’ Dante was the owner of New Jersey’s most sinister strip club (the Bada Bing) and trusted consiglieri to chunky crime boss Tony Soprano. He was played, in his first acting gig, by erstwhile rock guitarist ‘Miami’ Steve Van Zandt and now he’s back in witness protection comedy Lillyhammer. Except he’s not. But he is really.

It seems that we don’t really like our gangsters funny; we want them nasty, brutal and, preferably, Italian-American

The character of Sil has been renamed Frank ‘The Fixer’ Tagliano but is identical in every other way. As great as Van Zandt was in the Sopranos, no-one would claim he is an actor of any versatility and so here he is simply asked to do the same again but with more exaggerated facial expressions. Frank is moved by the FBI to Lillehammer in Norway after testifying against his underworld boss. And that’s the entire plot, all wrapped up in a 5-minute pre-credit sequence. The rest is your nothing more than your usual ‘fish-out-of-water’ comedy. Except it’s not that funny.

Judging by the first episode, belly laughs will be few and far between and even gentle whimsy appears to have eluded the show’s Norwegian creators. Aside from thieving wholesale a Sopranos character, the show has distinct overtones of Northern Exposure (but without the delightfully eccentric locals) and the chief of police character even whiffs strongly of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson.

While the Scandinavians – thanks to shows like Borgen and The Killing - are now recognized as the undisputed masters of Euro-doom, Lillyhammer displays precisely why Norway has never been known as a sitcom hotbed. All humorous premises and comedic opportunities are unexplored or quickly stifled. For instance, when Van Zandt tries skiing for the first time, an (admittedly obvious) chance for a bit of good, old-fashioned slapstick is overlooked and, by making all the Norwegians bi-lingual and having Frank understand just enough Norwegian to get by, we are even denied some basic ‘Mind Your Language’-style communication misunderstandings.

Judging by the first episode, belly laughs will be few and far between

You could argue that the show is aiming for a slow-burn character study rather than instant laughs but there appears to be little more to it than a New York gangster stuck amongst the woolly backs. Dragging laughs from just that tired scenario week after week will almost certainly prove difficult.

Maybe it will pick up. It seems obvious that Frank will buy a bar and settle into his familiar money-lending, racketeering ways and there may well be a chance that a few laughs can be eked out of that. For the time being, however, Lillyhammer appears to be neither comedy or drama but simply a missed opportunity, and Van Zandt is at serious risk of sullying his (thus far) 100% successful acting career.

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