The Sun's David Zurawik talks about season 3 of the Netflix series, 'Lilyhammer,' on WYPR FM's 'Take on Television.'
E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt is not one of the first people I ever thought of in connection with the future of TV.
But with the third season of his Netflix series, "Lilyhammer," about to drop Friday, I am here to tell you he has become indispensable to any discussion of where the medium is headed.
While Baltimore-made "House of Cards" is the series that generates most of our future-of-TV talk because of its digital and on-demand distribution model, "Lilyhammer" has all that and more. It preceded "House of Cards" as the first original series from Netflix to drop a full season all at once and be accessible 24/7 for streaming.
And I'll also tell you at least one way in which "Lilyhammer" is more intelligent, edgy and sociologically resonant than the Kevin Spacey political drama — in its ongoing critique of multiculturalism, the ideology that dominates American political life but is rarely explored in mainstream media.
Series creators Anne Bjornstad and Eilif Skodvin say they conceived of Van Zandt's Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano as a "fish out of water," a safe and reliable comedic device. But in the musician's performance and his own scripting for the character, Tagliano has become a way for millions of viewers to symbolically explore American cultural imperialism as well as the pluses and minuses of a belief system that privileges individual ethnic, racial and religious identification over any allegiance to a national system of values.
Sound heavy? Don't worry. "Lilyhammer" doesn't play that way. In fact, the series sometimes goes too light and broad in its mix of comedy and drama. But I can live with that, given the serious and daring cultural work it does amid the fun.
And, by the way, Van Zandt is also supervising the music on "Lilyhammer," which is why you see fabulous guest appearances and performances by the likes of rock legend Gary "U.S." Bonds, whose 1961 version of "Quarter to Three" was an E Street Band staple on tours in the 1970s.
For those not familiar with the series, the journey of Tagliano, a New York mob underboss, begins when his beloved dog, Lily, is shot and killed during an attempt on his life by a rival mobster. In vengeance, Tagliano decides to tell the FBI everything he knows about his rival, hoping to put him in prison for life.
When asked by the feds where he would like to live in the Witness Protection Program, he shocks them by saying Lillehammer, Norway. He pronounces it "Lilyhammer," hence the title, which is also a nod to the deceased pet.
"Didn't you see the Olympics of '94?" he says in response to the agents' incredulity. "It was beautiful there: clean air, fresh white snow and gorgeous broads? And last of all, nobody's going to be looking for me there."
Of course, the Lillehammer in which he arrives under a new identity as Giovanni "Johnny" Henriksen is far from the postcard version shown in network-TV Olympics coverage.
Think "Northern Exposure," the 1990s CBS series that starred Rob Morrow as a New York-loving Columbia Medical School graduate sent to Cicely, Alaska, to work off his school loans. I loved that series for its wise exploration of Jewish identity, but it never worked on as many levels as "Lilyhammer."
The fundamental joke of Tagliano basing such a life-changing decision on the postcard-perfect lies of TV is yet another bit of clever cultural criticism — this one of American TV and its audience, the way it sells false images and how we lap them up.
The pilot is a gem, particularly as Tagliano tries to navigate the incredible bureaucracy of Norway as a self-described "immigrant."
His first trip to the government office, wearing his Italian shoes, Chesterfield top coat and gangster night-on-the-town duds, starts with him trying to bribe his case officer for help in getting a license to own a bar. It ends with Tagliano being put in a remedial citizenship class that he will have to attend five days a week for six months.
He needs to have a "humbler attitude," the American is told.
"You telling me I have to go to school six months just to learn to be a [expletive] immigrant?" he demands.
But go he eventually does, to study with a teacher whose strength is "multiculturalism," according to the case officer.
In a later episode, Tagliano is attracted to his female teacher and upset when a Muslim man in his class refuses to shake her hand because she's female.
Tagliano slams the man up against a bathroom wall during a break in the class, and after calling him offensive names, threatens to harm him further if he does not apologize to the teacher and shake her hand.
While the bathroom scene plays out in a way that might lead some viewers to be critical of the Muslim who refused to shake hands, the teacher's reaction when he subsequently does apologize and extend his hand shows she was not offended. She understood his belief system, even if it did appear to demean women.
There are no easy answers here, just a keen awareness of cultural differences — and constant reminders that we each see the world through the prism of our personal histories. Multiculturalism 101.
There is also a synchronicity between that ideology and the technology and marketing that drives Netflix. While American TV criticism is mainly focused on U.S. and British audiences, Netflix is thinking globally with a series like "Lilyhammer," which is seen in 50 countries.
It's set in Norway and is made by a Norwegian cast and crew. But it stars an American actor playing an American-born and -bred character whose values often clash with those of Norway. It is simultaneously available in Spanish, Portuguese, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Swedish and Dutch.
No matter what country you are in, there are so many different languages spoken among the characters that you can't view the series without subtitles. (I tried and missed a lot of the jokes.)
In a nod to its huge Brazilian audience, Season 3 opens in Brazil, where a member of Tagliano's crew goes to marry a woman he met on the Internet. A good part of the first two episodes takes place in the sun and sand of Rio de Janeiro as opposed to the ice and snow of Lillehammer. It works dramatically and comically.
None of this is accidental, according to Van Zandt.
"I said in order to be the most relatable that we can be to the international community, I think we should be the most Norwegian we can be," he said in a Netflix interview. "We should be as detailed and eccentric as you can think of, all those crazy little things that people consider quite normal in Norway — waiting six months for a driver's license or the father having to go home and care for the baby for a couple of months to, by law, actually be the father."
Van Zandt says the series tries to have "fun with the Norwegian bureaucracy," while also respecting how "complicated" the culture is.
"They're very much community-minded; they are womb-to-tomb health care and education for free for everybody. There's no homelessness and there's no real crime to speak of. And there's no poverty," he said.
"The fact that I'm an American starring in a Norwegian show that's mostly in subtitles but not completely — it's an odd combination of things. But it's an integration of cultures, which lends itself to be a bit of an archetype for the future."
"Archetype" is a big word, and the future of television is a very big topic.
Three years ago, I probably would have paid little or no attention to anything Van Zandt had to say on the matter.
But after his success as star, writer, executive producer and musical director in dealing with the complexities of multiculturalism on "Lilyhammer," I'm all ears and mind wide open. I can't wait to see what he does in his directorial debut on the season finale.