February 6, 2012 | by Adam Wilson
My name wasn’t on the list. When I told her I was with The Paris Review, the woman in charge gave a can’t-be-bothered shrug and stuck me on the red carpet between a correspondent from the socialite party blog Guest of a Guest and a reporter from The New York Daily News. The two were in deep discussion about a monthly gathering for gay men over six foot two.
“The Tall Gay Agenda, you’ve seriously never heard of it?”
“But I would never get in—I’m only 5'9''!
“It’s not just for tall gays, it’s in celebration of. Admirers are welcome!”
I was eavesdropping hard, announcing my dorky heterosexuality by wearing a backpack, revealing my red-carpet naïveté by not carrying a recording device and mumbling the name of my publication.
“Shouldn’t you be, like, hanging out with The Observer or something?”
The occasion was a screening and gala to celebrate Lilyhammer, a quirky new series starring Steven “Little Stevie” Van Zandt (of Sopranos and E Street Band fame). Stevie plays a former New York mobster removed to rural Norway after ratting out his boss and joining the Witness Protection Program. The show, which premiers today through Netflix’s Play at Home streaming service, is the company’s first foray into original programming.
Prophetic bloggers have buzzed about the inevitability of this move for years: Netflix is coming, and the masters of pay cable are terrified. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I streamed the whole thing.
If this was the new face of television it looked a lot like the old face. The red carpet thronged with HBO talent, including at least five different cast members from The Sopranos, Big Love’s Chloë Sevigny, and Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon. They were here, it seemed, not to ride the coattails of Netflix’s market takeover, but to lend a measure of credibility to the new project. Or maybe they were just friends of Little Stevie, a gregarious host who spent the cocktail hour hugging and mugging and generally enjoying the moment. Also on hand were Tony Bennett and Bruce Springsteen. Bennett is stately and cool, while Springsteen maintains a level of slicked-hair sexiness even into his sixties. Still, neither is the kind of youthful ambassador one associates with the ushering in of a new era.
The decor seemed strangely miscalculated and somewhat cheap. Soho’s swank Crosby Street Hotel had been made over as a Scandinavian mountain range, decked out in mini fake pine trees covered in snow made from pipe cleaners. Waitresses in silver minidresses served champagne from minibottles decorated in American flags. Decidedly not in miniature were former Sopranos Steve Schirripa and Vincent Pastore, who barreled down the carpet with all the power and grace of two garbage trucks on a the Jersey turnpike. Tony Sirico née Paulie Walnuts greeted reporters as if they were his nephews, pinching cheeks and crushing palms. I squirmed out of the way. I couldn’t forget the look of nihilistic glee on his face when he snuffed out that innocent octogenarian with a pillow in season four.
My colleague from the Daily News was a braver man. Unfazed, he asked Sirico if he would be making a guest appearance on his friend’s new program. Sirico explained why this wouldn’t be so: “I don’t play rats and I don’t play gays. It’s nothing personal. That’s just my rule.”
The Daily News reporter pondered this choice with open-minded generosity. “An actor has to know his limits,” he told me.
Last down the carpet was the ubiquitous Harvey Weinstein, looking nothing if not Weinstein-esque: agitated, unshaven, emanating power. My new friend from the Daily News—an excellent reporter, by the way; the Tall Gay Agenda would be lucky to have him!—asked the question on everyone’s mind: “Is this where television is headed? Is this the end of pay cable?”
Weinstein—who, according to our press packets, was one of the party’s hosts—was firm and unwavering in his response: “No.”
So much for toeing the party line.
“Well I guess we should go into the screening,” the Guest of a Guest correspondent said. “I can use it for backstory.”
The show itself is short on backstory. It takes less than five minutes for Van Zandt’s character, Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, to run afoul of the law, acquiesce to the FBI’s demands, and testify his way into Witness Protection. Under one condition: Frank wishes to be sent to Lillehammer (which he calls “Lilyhammer”), the Norweigan city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Frank remembers it as a place of “clean air, fresh white snow, and gorgeous broads.” When asked why he wouldn’t prefer a sunnier climate Frank explains that, “melanoma is for the old-school wise guys.” It’s a joke in line with much of the show’s humor: witty, cute, and self-aware.
Frank’s vision of this winter wonderland isn’t far from reality—the scenery is beautiful, and the women are, too—though the cross-continental move is not without difficulty. Problems range from the apparent incorruptibility of local officials to the frozen ground, which is icier than Harvey Weinstein’s stare.
Van Zandt carries the show, or rather, his face does. His jaw droops and his eyes slowly scan. To watch Frank the Fixer’s frustration as he fumbles over foreign-language learning tapes is pure pleasure; he’s channeling DeNiro—the DeNiro of Anyalze This, not Goodfellas, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lilyhammer is funny, sweet, and sharply written; it’s light on heaviness, heavy on soft-serve ethnic humor, and dotted with lovely footage of the snowy landscape. The excellent Norwegian supporting cast adds to the show’s indie-ness; half the dialogue is subtitled, and Van Zandt joked that the show’s budget is roughly equivalent to Boardwalk Empire’s catering bill. The subtitles and unflashy production are qualities that will probably make the show both a commercial failure (at least according to network primetime standards), and a small-scale critical hit. This, I would suggest, is exactly what Netflix wants. They’re baby-stepping into the game, working out the kinks and quietly establishing brand reliability. Win the viewer’s heart, and his wallet will follow. World domination can wait, at least until the premier of House of Cards, the hundred-million-dollar show, a Thatcher-era thriller, that Netflix bought last spring, outbidding both HBO and AMC.
My own efforts at world domination were proving far less effective. After embarrassing myself in front of Bruce Springsteen at the after-party—
Me: I’m from The Paris Review.
Bruce: What do you want?
Me: You’re, um, awesome.
—I downed my drink and figured it best to call it a night. But there was Chloë Sevigny, radiant in the cool kids’ corner, blonde bangs hanging over her eyebrows. I approached and told her I was from The Paris Review and that no one wanted to talk to me. Chloë, it turns out, is a reader and so are her friends. Next thing I knew I was in Sevigny’s circle, cracking jokes and ruminating on the future of television. It seemed that things couldn’t get any better when I saw Tony Sirico point to me and beckon from ten feet away. Was that really Paulie Walnuts calling me over? “Yeah you,” he said.
My new friends watched as I strolled over to Sirico, dimple-grinning as if I’d just been picked first for the kickball team.
“Hey, pal,” Sirico said to me, “could you take a picture of me and this guy and his girlfriend?”
He handed me a camera. Behind me, the celebrities laughed.
Adam Wilson is the author of the novel Flatscreen, forthcoming from Harper Perennial in February.